Leicester expert helps narrow down possible sites for Mars rover mission

Posted by er134 at Apr 04, 2014 04:03 PM |
The University of Leicester’s Dr John Bridges has helped pick eight possible destinations for the ExoMars rover mission, which will search for signs of life on the Red Planet

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 4 April 2014

A Leicester scientist is helping to decide possible destinations for a new rover mission which aims to find out if life ever existed on Mars.

Dr John Bridges of the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre, within the Department of Physics and Astronomy, works in the group which is helping to decide where the ExoMars rover will land.

Dr Bridges has described the mission as “the next step on” from NASA’s Curosity rover which is currently looking for evidence of habitable environments on the planet.

The 300kg ExoMars rover is set to launch in 2018. Once it is there, it will drill up to 2 metres below the planet’s surface to take samples for physical and chemical analysis.

A key challenge at present is deciding exactly where the rover should aim for in order to have the best chance of gathering useful data.

The final choice for the landing site must show significant signs of long-lasting or frequently occurring water activity.

In addition, the site must strike the right balance between offering the best scientific conditions and remaining accessible to the available technology.

The European Space Agency – which is leading the mission along in cooperation with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) – has published a longlist of eight possible destinations for the craft.

All eight are close to the planet’s equator –and consist of Hypanis Vallis, Simud Vallis, Mawrth, Oxia Planum (x2), Coogoon Valles, Oxia Palus and Southern Isidis.

The scientists have prioritised four favourite sites within this top eight - Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Oxia Palus.

They will now narrow these down to an official shortlist - with a final choice expected to be made in 2017.

John Bridges is bringing a huge amount of expertise to the decision-making process – particularly through his major role in NASA’s current Mars Curiosity rover mission.

Since the Curiosity’s launch in November 2011, he has led a team from the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester, the Open University and CNRS France, who are analysing data to determine the conditions associated with the presence of water and assess the past Habitability of Mars for microbial life.

As a result, he has gained invaluable insights into the most effective target areas for drilling.

While choosing possible sites for the ExoMars rover, the team have looked for areas of clay deposits on the planet using spectroscopic analysis – a process which allows scientists to glean information about the chemical and physical properties of an object from the light it emits.

They also surveyed areas of the planet using the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – which takes pictures of Mars with resolutions of 0.3 metres per pixel.

This shows areas of alluvial and deltaic sediments – collections of loose soil and sand sheets – which also point towards evidence of water activity in the past.

Dr Bridges said: “In some ways, ExoMars is the next step on from Curiosity. Curiosity is looking for habitable environments, while ExoMars is looking for traces of past life.

“We are still in the era of Mars exploration – and the fact we are going to a new site on the planet is very exciting. It is like exploring the Americas – and the difference between landing in Virginia or landing in San Salvador.

“The sites we chose had to have a mixture of scientific attraction while being realistic given engineering constraints.

“Scientifically, we are looking for traces of past life. We have used spectroscopic analysis of Mars as well as the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to find evidence of clays that have formed.

“But the sites need to be situated at a certain elevation and latitude because the rover is using solar arrays. All of the sites are situated close to the planet’s equator, so the rover can receive the most light.”

Ends

Notes to editors:

For more information, please contact Dr John Bridges at: j.bridges@le.ac.uk

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