University of Leicester space scientist involved in two missions to Mars

Posted by ap507 at Mar 14, 2016 01:17 PM |
Professor John Bridges working on the Europe-Russia ‘Mars methane mission’ which launched today and – in a separate announcement - is selected again by NASA for Mars Rover ‘Curiosity’ mission

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 14 March 2016 

  • Professor John Bridges, of the University's Space Research Centre, will analyse data sent back by the European Space Agency satellite called the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which lifted off today from Baikonur in Kazakhstan
  • Professor Bridges to use Trace Gas Orbiter to Study Martian terrain for the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission
  • One of the aims of the mission is to study a landing site for the future ExoMars Rover mission
  • The Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander will take seven months to reach the Red Planet

An exploratory mission to Mars which will give University of Leicester Space Research Centre planetary scientists vital information about potential landing sites for the upcoming ExoMars project launched from Kazakhstan today.

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 9.30am as part of a preliminary exercise to study where the future ExoMars rover, planned for 2018 or 2020, will land, as it searches for signs of microbial life.

Riding on the back of a Russian Proton rocket, the satellite will take advantage of the close proximity of Mars's orbit in relation to Earth and began its seven month journey in spectacular style.

The TGO mission will take measurements of trace gases in the Martian atmosphere, such as methane, which could be an indicator of biological activity.

Accompanying the satellite will be the Schiaparelli lander, which will be used to test controlled landings, a precursor to the 2018/2020 mission.

Schiaparelli is scheduled to touchdown at Meridiani Planum, on the planet's equator, in October.

At the same time TGO, a high-resolution imaging system, will begin to orbit the Red Planet sending back information about the chemical composition of the surface and atmosphere.

Playing a vital part in the analysis of the incoming Martian data is University of Leicester space scientist Professor John Bridges.

He is part of the CaSSIS (Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System) camera team – tasked with characterising areas associated with the emission of traces of methane gas which is a potential indicator of biological activity.

Professor Bridges said: “The Trace Gas Orbiter will provide high resolution, stereo, colour coverage of Mars.

“This will help with landing site characterisation for the rover and will also help us to understand the origin of methane that we have found with Mars Science Laboratory.”

The TGO will examine three target sites:

  • Oxia Planum (clay-rich)
  • Aram Dorsum (ancient river)
  • Mawrth Vallis (clay-rich and perhaps ancient weathering)

All three Martian features are located in equatorial latitudes – a tactical decision aimed at gathering the maximum amount of energy from the Sun.

Professor Bridges said: “Equatorial sites help with getting enough power from the solar panels, in ExoMars case, the relatively moderate temperature also helps with design and operations.

“TGO will help with characterising the final site, but also other areas of Mars where we think there are signs of current wind and occasional hypersaline brine activity, and release of methane.”

  • Earlier this month, NASA announced that Professor Bridges had been reselected as a participating scientist for the Curiosity Mars rover mission. He will be part of the Mars Science Laboratory Project, which built and operates the rover. Those  selected by NASA are part of a science team for the rover's 10 science instruments. Participating scientists on the mission play active roles in the day-to-day science operations of Curiosity, involving heavy interaction with rover engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the mission for NASA.

During Curiosity's prime mission, which was completed in 2014, the project met its main goal by finding evidence that ancient Mars offered environmental conditions with all the requirements for supporting microbial life, if any ever existed on Mars. In Curiosity's first extended mission, researchers are using the rover on the lower portion of a layered mountain to study how Mars' ancient environment changed from wet conditions favorable for microbial life to harsher, drier conditions. For more information about Curiosity, visit: http://mars.nasa.gov/msl

NOTES TO EDITORS:

For more information, contact Professor Bridges on: j.bridges@le.ac.uk

Nasa announcement: http://mars.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/index.cfm?FuseAction=ShowNews&NewsID=1897

Professor Bridges’s MSL blog:  http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/physics/research/src/res/planetary-science/mslblog

More info on TGO:

http://exploration.esa.int/mars/46475-trace-gas-orbiter/

http://www.nature.com/news/mars-launch-to-test-collaboration-between-europe-and-russia-1.19547

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35799792

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