UKSA to Contribute Instruments for ExoMars Spacecraft

ESA's ExoMars rover. (Courtesy of ESA)


The UK Space Agency is announcing £10.5M for the development of instruments to search for signs of past or present life on Mars. The instruments are part of the scientific payload on the ExoMars rover to be launched in 2018 as part of a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and US space agency NASA. ExoMars is a flagship project in the UK Space Agency’s science and exploration programme.

A two-step programme, the adventure begins in 2016 when NASA will launch an ESA-led orbiter to try to understand the origin and distribution of trace gases in the atmosphere of the Red Planet. In particular, it aims to explain why methane – a gas which scientists know should be destroyed in the atmosphere within a few hundred years – seems to be continuously forming at certain places on the planet. The orbiter will also release an experimental probe which will make a fiery descent into the thin Martian atmosphere and use its on-board rockets to demonstrate Europe’s ability to make a controlled landing on another planet.

Then in 2018, NASA will land ESA’s ExoMars rover alongside a NASA rover. Thanks to funding from the UK Space Agency, the rover vehicle for ExoMars is being designed and tested by leading UK space company EADS Astrium at its facility in Stevenage, Hertfordshire under a multi-million pound contract. The ExoMars rover is a robotic scientist which will search for evidence of past and present life and study the local Martian environment to understand when and where conditions that could have supported the development of life may have prevailed. Unlike previous US rovers, ExoMars will carry a radar able to search beneath it for scientifically promising locations under the surface and a drill to extract samples from 2 m down that will be fed to its on-board laboratory.

The UK is leading on developing two of the nine instruments (the Life Marker Chip and the Panoramic Camera) on the rover and has a major involvement in two other instruments (the Raman Laser Spectrometer and the X-Ray diffactometer).

David Willetts, Universities and Science Minister, said, “The UK’s world-leading technology will play a major role in this international ExoMars project. Our scientists will expand our knowledge of the red planet and help generate applications for these technologies here at home to benefit society and the economy. It’s exciting to see UK engineers working on the most ambitious Mars mission ever attempted.”

The Life Marker Chip is a highly innovative instrument using techniques from the world of medical diagnostics and is designed to detect the presence of organic compounds that might suggest the rover has found past or present life. UK involvement comes from the University of Leicester, Cranfield University and Imperial College London. The leader of the project (the so-called Principal Investigator) is Prof Mark Sims from the University of Leicester.

The Panoramic Camera will be the eyes of the rover. It will help guide the rover and be used by geologists to understand the history and structure of Mars. This will help choose the best locations to use the drill to acquire samples. Led by planetary scientist Professor Andrew Coates from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College London, it also involves robotics expert Professor Dave Barnes at the University of Aberystwyth.

The Raman Laser Spectrometer uses a very sensitive technique called Raman spectroscopy to diagnose the internal structure of molecules so that scientists can understand what sort of minerals and organic compounds the rover is studying. The UK team is led by Dr Ian Hutchinson from Leicester University, while Professor Howell Edwards of Bradford University is the Science Team Coordinator. The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, Oxfordshire is also a major contributor to this programme, which is led by Spain.

The X-Ray Diffractometer will study the structure of minerals already known to exist on Mars such as clays, carbonates and sulphates and also determine whether these have been subjected to alteration processes by water and have the potential to harbour life. Dr Ian Hutchinson and Dr Richard Ambrosi of Leicester University have an important role in the development of the detector array for this instrument and Dr Hutchinson is the Deputy Principal Investigator for the instrument, which is led by Italy.

Business and Industry Involvement in ExoMars

In addition to the involvement of EADS Astrium and SciSys, other high tech companies working on the ExoMars project include Systems Engineering and Assessment Ltd (SEA), Vorticity and Fluid Gravity Engineering Ltd (FGE). In total, more than 200 skilled staff