Interplanetary explorer stops off at Leicester
ExoMars is the flagship mission of ESA’s Aurora space exploration programme. It will launch two rovers to the red planet in 2018, following a descent and landing practice mission two years earlier. The University of Leicester is significantly involved in the development of the rovers, which is why a demonstration prototype is trundling around campus today – to the delight of staff, students and invited local school children.
The rovers will carry a wide range of instruments, three of which are being partially constructed here in our Space Research Centre.
An x-ray diffractometer which will examine soil and minerals. This is an Italian-led project with our own Dr Richard Ambrosi and Dr Ian Hutchinson overseeing construction of the CCD (charge-couple device) which is integral to x-ray diffraction work.
This spectrometer will also require a CCD and, since the University of Leicester has a lot of experience in building such things, we will be a major contributor to this Spanish-led project. Dr Ian Hutchinson is our lead chap on this.
Life Marker Chip (LMC)
This is arguably the coolest instrument on the vehicle because it will actually search directly for life on Mars, or organic molecules at least. The LMC is absolutely cutting edge technology and one of the most important experiments ever sent to Mars. Our own Professor Mark Sims is leading this one.
Leicester is also involved in the development of the PanCam panoramic camera, which will help the rover to identify its location and also search for visual clues among the rocks, and the Close-Up Imager (CLUPI) which will provide high-resolution colour images of rocks and soil samples.
The University of Leicester has been involved in space exploration for half a century including a previous mission to Mars, the ill-fated Beagle 2 (which did get all the way to Mars but sadly broke when it got there).
There is a long, long way to go before ExoMars even launches, let alone lands, but the University of Leicester will be closely involved the whole way. And with ten years of development, production and testing ahead, even if you are at school right now – in fact, even if you are still at primary school – there is the potential to study Physics and Astronomy at Leicester and see a major interplanetary mission coming together at close hand.