ExoMars

Desert trial for ESA Mars rover

Next week will see ESA’s most ambitious planetary rover test yet. Robotic exploration of a Mars-like desert in South America will be overseen from the UK, providing experience for future missions to the Red Planet.

The rover faces the desolate Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the closest terrestrial matches for Mars. Among the driest places on Earth, it lacks any vegetation and its red–brown soil and rocks make it look even more like Mars.

The aim is to build up experience in operating rovers on a planet, which requires a very different way of working from a satellite mission.

For added pressure on the rover’s remote overseers – based at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Harwell, UK, next to ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications – each day of the five-day  test will be treated as equivalent to two Mars days, or ‘sols’.

For each sol they will first downlink data then prepare a set of commands for the next sol that the rover will then carry out on its own.

The trial is intended to develop technologies and expertise for future Mars missions in general, but for added realism it is using ESA’s 2018 ExoMars rover as its ‘reference mission’.

An early prototype of the six-wheeled ExoMars rover will be put through its paces, fitted with prototypes of three of its scientific instruments: a panoramic camera for stereo 3D imaging, a ground-penetrating radar to probe subsurface geology, and a close-up imager for studying subsurface samples to a resolution of a thousandth of a millimetre.

These three instruments will work together to select a sample site with outcrops of bedrock beside looser material. A human-operated hand drill will gather underground samples for the rover to examine – although this human intervention will remain invisible to the remote operators.

“This field trial is about optimising the use of typical instruments and equipment aboard a Mars rover and generating a set of commands for the rover to execute the following day,” explains Michel van Winnendael, overseeing the Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, project for ESA.

Image credit: ESA-Michel van Winnendael

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Sensor Being Developed to Check for Life on Mars

Signs of life on the Martian surface would still be visible even after bacteria were zapped with a potentially fatal dose of radiation, according to new research — if life ever existed there, of course.

Using “model” bacteria expected to resemble what microbes could look like on the Red Planet, the research team used a Raman spectrometer — an instrument type that the ExoMars rover will carry in 2018 — to see how the signal from the bacteria change as they get exposed to more and more radiation. 

The bottom line is the study authors believe the European Space Agency rover’s instrument would be capable of seeing bacteria on Mars — from the past or the present — if the bacteria were there in the first place.

Readings from the NASA Mars Curiosity rover recently found that humans on the surface of Mars would have a higher risk of cancer due to the increased radiation level on the surface. Mars does not have a global magnetic field to deflect radiation from solar flares, nor a thick atmosphere to shelter the surface.

Full Article

Credit: ESA/NASA/Elizabeth Howell

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Researchers Say ExoMars Mission Could Detect Bacteria on Mars - Past or Present

Signs of life on the Martian surface would still be visible even after bacteria were zapped with a potentially fatal dose of radiation, according to new research — if life ever existed there, of course.

Using “model” bacteria expected to resemble what microbes could look like on the Red Planet, the research team used a Raman spectrometer — an instrument type that the ExoMars rover will carry in 2018 — to see how the signal from the bacteria change as they get exposed to more and more radiation.

The bottom line is the study authors believe the European Space Agency rover’s instrument would be capable of seeing bacteria on Mars — from the past or the present — if the bacteria were there in the first place.

Readings from the NASA Mars Curiosity rover recently found that humans on the surface of Mars would have a higher risk of cancer due to the increased radiation level on the surface. Mars does not have a global magnetic field to deflect radiation from solar flares, nor a thick atmosphere to shelter the surface.

The new study still found the signature of life in these model microbes at 15,000 Gray of radiation, which is thousands of times higher than the radiation dose that would kill a human. At 10 times more, or 150,000 Gray, the signature is erased

“What we’ve been able to show is how the tell-tale signature of life is erased as the energetic radiation smashes up the cells’ molecules,” stated Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiology researcher at the University of Leicester who led the study.

“In this study we’ve used a bacterium with unrivaled resistance to radiation as a model for the type of bacteria we might find signs of on Mars. What we want to explore now is how other signs of life might be distorted or degraded by irradiation,” Dartnell added. “This is crucial work for understanding what signs to look for to detect remnants of ancient life on Mars that has been exposed to the bombardment of cosmic radiation for very long periods of time.”

Images: B&W image shows a river that sprang from a past glacier from an unnamed crater in Mars’ middle latitudes. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

ExoMars is an ESA 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

Read more:  + ExoMars Mission 

European Space Agency to Begin Testing Mars Rover in Chilean Desert Next Week

It seems like most of the Mars-related headlines go to NASA, but the European Space Agency has a strong interest and investment in the Red Planet as well. Next week, ESA’s most ambitious planetary rover test to date will kick off with the robotic exploration of a Mars-like desert in South America, which will provide experience for future missions to Mars.

The rover will explore the desolate Atacama Desert located in northern Chile, which is considered to be one of the closest terrestrial matches for Mars’ environment. This location is among the driest locations on Earth, lacking any vegetation, and its red-brown soil and rocks give it even more of a Mars-like feel.

The goal of the testing is to build up experience in operating rovers on a planet, which requires a different way of working from a satellite mission. The trial is also intended to develop technologies and expertise for future Mars missions, but for an added sense of realism, it is using ESA’s 2018 ExoMars rover as its “reference mission.”

Each day of the five-day test will be treated as the equivalent of two Mars days, or “sols”. For each sol, the scientists will downlink data then prepare a set of commands for the next sol that the rover will carry out on its own.

The rover’s remote overseers will be based at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Hartwell, U.K., which is located next to ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications.

In the Atacama Desert of Chile, an early prototype of the six-wheeled ExoMars rover will be fitted with prototypes of its three scientific instruments, which include a panoramic camera for stereo 3D imaging, a ground-penetrating radar to prove subsurface geology, and a close-up imager for studying subsurface samples to a resolution of a thousandth of a millimeter. The instruments will work together to select a sample site that includes outcrops of bedrock beside looser material. A human-operated hand drill will collect underground samples for the rover to examine, but the human intervention will be invisible to the remote operators.

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Russia and Europe Team Up for Mars Missions

Russia and the European Space Agency have officially teamed up to send a series of spacecraft to search for signs of life on Mars.

European space officials and Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) signed a deal Thursday (March 14) to launch a Mars orbiter mission in 2016 and a rover in 2018 as part of what is now a joint ExoMars program.

The Mars exploration agreement outlines the two agencies’ responsibilities for the upcoming unmanned missions. In 2016, ESA will provide the Trace Gas Orbiter to study the atmosphere of Mars to measure its chemical composition, as well as an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module.

For the 2018 mission, ESA will provide the carrier and the ExoMars rover, which will search for signs that life on Mars existed in the past or present, collecting samples from as deep as 6.5 feet (2 meters) beneath the surface of the Red Planet.

“It will be the first Mars rover able to drill to depths of 2 m, collecting samples that have been shielded from the harsh conditions of the surface, where radiation and oxidants can destroy organic materials,” ESA officials said in a statement.

Roscosmos, meanwhile, will supply the rockets to launch both Mars missions, as well as the 2018 descent module and surface platform. Both space agencies will provide scientific instruments and will work together on the scientific goals of the missions, according to ESA officials.

ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain called Thursday’s agreement a “momentous occasion” for the ExoMars program after meeting with the head of Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, at the ESA headquarters in Paris. Dordain said in a statement that the agreement “will demonstrate the competitiveness of European industry, be important for preparing a solid participation of ESA in future international exploration missions and address the key question of whether life ever arose on Mars.”

NASA pulled out of the ExoMars program last year due to budget cuts in its planetary science program, but ESA officials said the U.S. space agency will still contribute some communications and engineering support for the new Mars missions.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter module consisting of the spacecraft structure, thermal control and propulsion systems was handed over by OHB System to Thales Alenia Space France at a ceremony held 3 February 2014 in Bremen, Germany.

Comprising two missions that will be launched to Mars in 2016 and 2018, respectively, ExoMars will address the outstanding scientific question of whether life has ever existed on Mars by drilling the surface of the planet and analysing in situ the samples. The ExoMars programme will also demonstrate key technologies for entry, descent, landing, drilling and roving on the martian surface.

The Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO, will be launched in 2016 along with Schiaparelli – the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module.

ExoMars’ Organic Sniffing Spectrometer

Lewis Dartnell spent the better part of two years researching and field-testing methods to reboot society in his best-selling book The Knowledge. But his day job is arguably even cooler: as an astrobiologist at the University of Leicester, he’s developing ways to look for life on Mars through the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. Here, Dartnell provides an update on the frequently delayed, yet scientifically promising mission.

Wired: In The Knowledge, you incorporate ideas and methods from many different branches of science. How does this kind of interconnectedness show up in your own work?

Dartnell: Drawing from lots of different sources is what I do in my own research in astrobiology, and not just knowledge, but the methods and techniques you could use. It’s not just biology, but engineering, and robotics and instruments as well as physics and planetary science, and you’re constantly outside of your comfort zone having to learn new things. It keeps you on your toes, but that’s what I enjoy about astrobiology.

Wired: What is your role with the ExoMars mission?

Dartnell: The exciting thing about ExoMars is that, not only will it for the first time have a drill so it can get properly underground on Mars and find stuff that has been protected from the surface environment, but it’s also going to use experiments like Raman spectroscopy, which is the one that I’m directly involved in at the University of Leicester. The reason Raman’s exciting is that it’s very sensitive and very competent and capable of picking up organic molecules or bio signatures of life, and we want to try this new technique on Mars.

Wired: What are your expectations for ExoMars?

Dartnell: We don’t know, and that’s the point of exploration; you don’t always know what you’re going to try and find. You know what you’re hoping for, and what might be realistic to expect. So what we hope to find on Mars are organic molecules – the basic Lego pieces or building blocks or chemistry kit for life; amino acids and sugars that should exist on Mars but we have yet to discover. Hopefully either NASA’s Curiosity or ESA’s ExoMars will discover those, and maybe beyond that they’ll find not just the building blocks for life but signs of life itself – biosignatures.

Wired: What kinds of biosignatures would be convincing as a sign of past life?

Dartnell: A biosignature is any sign or any evidence of life, and this might be something like a fossilised shape that looks a bit like a cell, it might be things as complex as DNA. It might be more subtle things like isotopic ratios in rocks, which on Earth are used to show early cases of life. Or if we do find things like amino acids, we can tell if they are made by life or through non-living processes like pre-biotic chemistry by their molecular handedness. So there are various quirks or various signs of organic molecules we can look for that would point to biology, rather than geochemical processes.

Wired: What is the likelihood that you will find biosignatures on Mars?

Dartnell: Unfortunately, you basically can’t answer that question. It’s somewhere between 0 and 1, but we don’t know because whenever you’re trying to do something in science you’re trying to do something new that you don’t already know the answer to,

However, for all we know about life on Earth, it seems to have arisen pretty rapidly. It seems like it might be a probable thing to happen, if you’ve got the right kind of environment. So the big question is whether Mars ever have the right kind of environment, and if so, did that basic pre-biotic chemistry ever get far enough down the line to produce cells? And if that happened, what might be the best way of looking for that life and trying to detect these biosignatures? Which biosignatures would still remain after all this time? This is the kind of thing we’re trying to do with ExoMars.

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ExoMars Scientists Narrow Down Landing Sites
Facing engineering constraints, researchers propose four destinations for European rover.
Elizabeth Gibney, Nature News & Comment, 02 April 2014
Image source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Scientists have picked four potential landing sites for a European rover designed to search for life on Mars [Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Oxia Palus].

The 300-kilogram ExoMars rover, part of a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, is scheduled to land on the red planet in early 2019. Armed with a drill that can bore 2 metres into rock, the rover will search for preserved organic matter that, on the surface, might have been destroyed by harsh radiation.

Continue reading …

More on the ExoMars program at the European Space Agency …

ESA’s test rover begins exploring the Atacama Desert

ESA’s test rover has been fitted with scientific instruments  and made its first tracks in the sands of Chile’s Atacama Desert. Meanwhile, team members have explored the area to select a suitable site for testing, flying a drone to produce an aerial map.

This week’s Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, field trial is gaining experience in remotely operating a Mars rover prototype equipped with scientific instruments. ESA has assembled an international industrial team for the trial, which takes place in the Mars-like Atacama, one of the driest places on Earth.

ESA’s 2018 ExoMars mission is acting as the ‘reference mission’ for the trial. The rover vehicle used for the trial, called ‘Bridget’, is provided by Astrium Stevenage in the UK. 

On Tuesday morning a trio of prototype ExoMars rover instruments was fitted to Bridget. The panoramic camera provides stereo 3D terrain imagery, the close-up camera works like a geologist’s hand-lens for high-resolution imaging, and the radar peers through soil for a detailed 3D view of the shallow subsurface beneath the rover.

On Monday evening, before the rover had been deployed in the field, panoramic images were sent to the control centre. Looking at them along with a digital elevation map, the remote control team had to make their first decision on the path to be taken by the rover the following day.

“The next morning, once the instruments were installed, this route was uploaded to the rover,” adds Michel. “It then began its first exploration, with some debugging and manual interventions needed along the way.

“Nevertheless, after a long working day that lasted until sunset, the data collected by the instruments were sent back to the control centre.”

Image credit: ESA/RAL Space

ExoMars 2018

The ExoMars mission, scheduled for 2018, will search for signs of life on the Martian surface. Currently, there are four sites that are being considered for landing. The four sites are located near the equator and in an area where liquid water might have once been.

The selection process continues with landing simulations at each of the four sites, with the goal of choosing a final landing site by 2017.

The ESA press release discusses the reasoning behind the selection of the each site.

Image: The locations of the four possible landing sites. The coloring of the map represents the topography of the Martian surface: green regions represents an acceptable elevation, grey is where the elevation is too high, and black is where too much dust is present. (Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/LSSWG)

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ExoMars 2016 set to complete construction

ESA’s mission to Mars in 2016 has entered the final stage of construction with the signature of a contract today with Thales Alenia Space at the Paris Air & Space Show.

via europeinspace

Stay Curious! The ExoMars Project (Video) | Didier Schmitt, MD, PhD, Space exploration expert from France, participated in the Saturday Nov 24th, 2012 Panel II on Space Cooperation and Other Common Aims of Mankind. Schmitt took up the ExoMars project.

Four candidate landing sites for ExoMars 2018

ESA / ROSCOSMOS - ExoMars Mission logo.

1 October 2014

Four possible landing sites are being considered for the ExoMars mission in 2018. Its rover will search for evidence of martian life, past or present.

ExoMars is a joint two-mission endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. The Trace Gas Orbiter and an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, will be launched in January 2016, arriving at Mars nine months later. The Rover and Surface Platform will depart in May 2018, with touchdown on Mars in January 2019.

Rover landing site candidates


The search for a suitable landing site for the second mission began in December 2013, when the science community was asked to propose candidates.

The eight proposals were considered during a workshop held by the Landing Site Selection Working Group in April. By the end of the workshop, there were four clear front-runners.

Following additional review by an ESA-appointed panel, the four sites have now been formally recommended for further detailed analysis.

The sites – Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Aram Dorsum – are all located relatively close to the equator.

“The present-day surface of Mars is a hostile place for living organisms, but primitive life may have gained a foothold when the climate was warmer and wetter, between 3.5 billion and 4 billion years ago,” says Jorge Vago, ESA’s ExoMars project scientist.

Mawrth Vallis


“Therefore, our landing site should be in an area with ancient rocks where liquid water was once abundant. Our initial assessment clearly identified four landing sites that are best suited to the mission’s scientific goals.”

The area around Mawrth Vallis and nearby Oxia Planum contains one of the largest exposures of rocks on Mars that are older than 3.8 billion years and clay-rich, indicating that water once played a role here. Mawrth Vallis lies on the boundary between the highlands and lowlands and is one of the oldest outflow channels on Mars.

Oxia Planum


The exposed rocks at both Mawrth Vallis and Oxia Planum have varied compositions, indicating a variety of deposition and wetting environments. In addition, the material of interest has been exposed by erosion only within the last few hundred million years, meaning the rocks are still well preserved against damage from the planet’s harsh radiation and oxidation environment.

By contrast, Hypanis Vallis lies on an exhumed fluvial fan, thought to be the remnant of an ancient river delta at the end of a major valley network. Distinct layers of fine-grained sedimentary rocks provide access to material deposited about 3.45 billion years ago.

Finally, the Aram Dorsum site receives its name from the eponymous channel, curving from northeast to west across the location. The sedimentary rocks around the channel are thought to be alluvial sediments deposited much like those around Earth’s River Nile.

Hypanis Vallis


This region experienced both sustained water activity followed by burial, providing protection from radiation and oxidation for most of Mars’ geological history, also making this a site with strong potential for finding preserved biosignatures.

“While all four sites are clearly interesting scientifically, they must also allow for the operational and engineering requirements for safe landing and roving on the surface,” adds Jorge.

“Technical constraints are satisfied to different degrees in each of these locations and, although our preliminary evaluation indicates that Oxia Planum has fewer problems compared to the other sites, verification is still on going.”

Aram Dorsum


The next stage of analysis will include simulations to predict the probability of landing success based on the entry profile, atmospheric and terrain properties at each of the candidate sites.

The aim is to complete the certification of at least one site by the second half of 2016, with a final decision on the landing site for the ExoMars 2018 rover to be taken sometime in 2017.

Notes for Editors:

Download the full report: Recommendation for the narrowing of ExoMars 2018 landing sites: http://exploration.esa.int/mars/54707

More ExoMars images, including digital terrain models of the candidate landing sites, are available here: http://exploration.esa.int/mars/44969-images-videos-archive/

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/Roscosmos/LSSWG/DLR/FU Berlin & NASA MGS MOLA Science Team.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch
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The ExoMars spacecraft is almost complete. A joint mission between ESA and Roscosmos, it begins with the launch of the ExoMars orbiter in 2016 and carries an aerodynamically designed capsule containing a robotic lander.

Getting to Mars, landing there safely and searching for life is a huge scientific and technical challenge. ExoMars 2016 will send back information about the Martian atmosphere and the lander’s findings. These will inform the second part of the mission, in 2018, when a European rover will drill into the Martian surface, up to two metres down. The rover will be trying to detect traces of organic molecules that indicate the presence of past or present life on Mars.

This video includes interviews with Jorge Vago, ExoMars Project Scientist, ESA and Pietro Baglioni, ExoMars Rover Manager, ESA. It shows ExoMars 2016 nearing construction in its clean room at Thales Alenia Space in France and a prototype ExoMars rover in the ExoMars test yard at ESA’s ESTEC facility in the Netherlands.

Russian space agency also on the hunt for extraterrestrial life

Russian space agency also on the hunt for extraterrestrial life – Russia’s space agency recently released a draft of their Federal Space Program for 2016 to 2025, and it includes their plans to join the European Space Agency (ESA) on the ExoMars Program whose mission is to hunt for signs of extraterrestrial life on Mars. (more…)

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ExoMars lander module named Schiaparelli

The entry, descent and landing demonstrator module that will fly on the 2016 ExoMars mission has been named ‘Schiaparelli’ in honour of the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who famously mapped the Red Planet’s surface features in the 19th century.

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The structural model of the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, or EDM, of ESA’s 2016 ExoMars mission has been subjected to a series of intense shaker tests to simulate the rigours of launching into space.

EDM will be launched to Mars together with the Trace Gas Orbiter and will test key landing technologies in preparation for the 2018 ExoMars rover mission and subsequent missions to Mars.