Drill op­er­a­tor has mo­bile lab

Science Illustrated - - SPACE -

Ev­i­dence of life. That is what the Euro­pean ExoMars rover is to look for on Mars. For this pur­pose, the rover is equipped with scan­ners, drills, and a com­pact lab­o­ra­tory.

The sam­ples will be 3 cm long, have a di­am­e­ter of 1 cm, and each one is brought to a small lab in­side the rover to be pho­tographed, pul­ver­ized, and sent to dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments which can tell sci­en­tists all about a sam­ple’s chem­i­cal make-up – such as if it con­tains or­ganic mol­e­cules from liv­ing creatures. The sam­ple will be sub­jected to laser treat­ment and heated in a small oven, be­fore data from spec­trom­e­ters iden­tify all chem­i­cal com­pounds.

The 310 kg rover with six wheels will ar­rive to Mars to­gether wit a Rus­sian land­ing plat­form equipped with its own in­stru­ments, which are to mea­sure the weather, the make-up of the at­mos­phere, and the mag­netic field on Mars. Upon its ar­rival to Mars, the so­lar-pow­ered rover will be lo­cated on the plat­form, which it will use as its base dur­ing the 7+ month mis­sion.

En­gi­neers will undoubtedly bite their nails dur­ing the land­ing in March 2021, as in spite of nu­mer­ous at­tempts, nei­ther Europe, nor Rus­sia have ever man­aged a suc­cess­ful land­ing on Mars. And even the ExoMars "dress re­hearsal" in 2016 went com­pletely wrong. The small Schi­a­par­elli probe was to land by means of para­chutes and brak­ing rock­ets, but a land­ing sys­tem er­ror meant that the brak­ing rock­ets were ac­ti­vated for three sec­onds rather than 30. The probe fell freely from an al­ti­tude of 3.7 km, hit­ting Mars at a speed of 540 km/h. In spite of the ac­ci­dent, the Trace Gas Or­biter (TGO) en­tered into an or­bit around Mars. From an al­ti­tude of 400 km, its in­stru­ments are now try­ing to draw a de­tailed im­age of the con­tents of the Mar­tian at­mos­phere. The in­ter­est par­tic­u­larly con­cerns gases such as meth­ane, whose ex­is­tence could be due to life on Mars.

The failed land­ing de­layed the rover launch by two years and stressed how dif­fi­cult it is to land on the Red Planet. So far, only NASA has man­aged suc­cess­ful land­ings both with and with­out rovers. The four rovers of So­journer, Spirit, Op­por­tu­nity, and Cu­rios­ity all ar­rived safely to Mars, and in com­bi­na­tion, they have cov­ered 75 km and car­ried out a wealth of sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments there.

Rover leaves drill sam­ples

The 3-m-long Mars 2020 rover is much like Cu­rios­ity, which landed in 2012, but with a weight of 1,050 kg, Mars 2020 will be a lit­tle heav­ier than Cu­rios­ity’s 899 kg. The weight in­crease is due to more ro­bust wheels, etc. Af­ter six years of ac­tiv­i­ties, Cu­rios­ity’s wheels are worn and even have a few holes. Al­though the wheels can

20 na­tions co­op­er­ate on the ExoMars mis­sion, which is headed by the Euro­pean Space Agency, ESA.

prob­a­bly last for an­other few years, NASA has cho­sen to equip Mars 2020 with wheels that are made of thicker aluminium.

Some of the new rover's in­stru­ments are up­graded ver­sions of sim­i­lar in­stru­ments of Cu­rios­ity's, whereas oth­ers are brand new. The rovers have no so­lar pan­els, rather they are pow­ered by ra­dioac­tive bat­ter­ies, in which the heat from the de­cay of plu­to­nium is con­verted into elec­tric­ity. Such a bat­tery can eas­ily have a life of 10 years.

Cu­rios­ity was sent to Mars to find out if the desert planet ever had a hos­pitable en­vi­ron­ment, in which mi­crobes could sur­vive. This does not only re­quire wa­ter, but also vi­tal el­e­ments such as oxy­gen, car­bon, hy­dro­gen, ni­tro­gen, phos­pho­rus, and sul­phur. Al­ready af­ter about one year, it was clear that all the nec­es­sary con­di­tions of life were once present in the area in which Cu­rios­ity is at work, so now the Mars 2020 rover is go­ing on a more fo­cused mis­sion to find ev­i­dence of past life – just like ESA’s ExoMars rover is in an­other lo­ca­tion. As­sisted by the in­stru­ments at the end of its long ro­botic arm, the rover will come quite close to the rocks. An X-ray in­stru­ment, that can study de­tails as small as salt grains, is to re­veal the make- up and struc­ture of the rock. An­other in­stru­ment will an­a­lyse even tinier struc­tures us­ing a cam­era, a spec­trom­e­ter, and an ul­tra­vi­o­let laser to find car­bon-con­tain­ing mol­e­cules which could come from micro­organ­isms.

As a rover can­not be too heavy, it does not bring lots of lab equip­ment. So, the Mars 2020 rover will leave small gifts for fu­ture mis­sions. The rover is equipped with a drill and brings 43 small titanium tubes, that can each hold a 15 g drill sam­ple with a length of 5 cm and a di­am­e­ter of 1 cm. In the course of the mis­sion, the rover is to col­lect at least 20 drill sam­ples, which are placed in the tubes, that are sealed and left on a suit­able, eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tion. Ac­cord­ing to plan, the drill sam­ples will be col­lected by a fu­ture rover, which makes sure to get them back to Earth on an un­known craft. On Earth, the drill sam­ples can be sub­jected to much more in­tense anal­y­sis than on Mars. A mis­sion that brings Mars sam­ples back to Earth could be re­al­ized in the late 2020s.

Ini­tially, we can look for­ward to the re­sults of the In­Sight lander, which will fo­cus on Mars’ in­te­rior for al­most two years. Its data are to re­veal the tem­per­a­ture of the in­te­rior and the ex­tent of vi­bra­tions in the ground and fi­nally de­ter­mine i f our neigh­bour­ing planet is still ge­o­log­i­cally ac­tive.


NASA’s Mars 2020 is a new ver­sion of Cu­rios­ity (photo). Apart from new in­stru­ments, the rover will also have stur­dier wheels.

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