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University of Leicester To Detect Clues For Life On Mars

June 2, 2010

Development model of Mars rover at University of Leicester on Friday June 4

A development model of the Mars Rover, called Bridget, is on display at the University Friday, June 4, providing invited schoolchildren as well as staff and students with an exciting glimpse into the shape of things to come.

The event coincides with celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of space research at the University of Leicester.

Scientists from the University of Leicester are involved in five instruments on board the ExoMars mission, including building the hardware for three of the instruments on board the craft. The ExoMars mission is one of the key missions under the remit of the newly formed UK Space Agency.

ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) is a European-led robotic mission to Mars, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. It is part of ESA’s Aurora program for robotic exploration of the Solar System and its aim is to further characterize the chemical, geological and possible biological environment on Mars in preparation for robotic missions and then human exploration. Data from the mission will also provide invaluable input for broader studies of exobiology – the search for life on other planets.

The mission to Mars also has enormous Earth-bound applications with spin-offs in collaboration with industry bringing environmental benefits as well as technologies that can be applied in the fields of health and crime detection.

Professor Sims said: “ExoMars is a key mission in exploration of the planet Mars. It will attempt to gather samples from a depth 1-2m below the surface where they are protected from radiation and oxidants thought to exist on the surface ““ both of which would destroy/heavily degrade complex organic compounds.

“The mission gives the University, and the Space Research Centre(SRC) team in particular, the opportunity to explore the chemistry and mineralogy of Mars as well as look at the possibility of life on Mars in the distant past, or even today, and at the same time create world-class science. Because of its innovative work in space instrumentation, which builds upon the SRC expertise in imaging detectors and its interdisciplinary work on sensor systems, the University is providing several instruments.

“This is a truly exciting opportunity to explore Mars and look for extra-terrestrial life and on Friday 4 June, we are announcing the University of Leicester teams preparing for the ExoMars Flight Model Build program.”

Following construction of prototypes and confirmation of the mission by ESA, University of Leicester teams will start to gear up for the design and build of the various test models of the instruments and the build of the flight instruments due to be delivered in 2014.Both local industry in the East Midlands and key UK companies will be involved in the build of these instruments.

Professor Sims added: “The University of Leicester and the UK has a major international role in this key mission. The work associated with the ExoMars mission will be a major part of the University’s Space Research Centre program until launch of the mission in 2018 and after that, with operations and ‘new science’ on the surface of Mars from 2019.

“For the last 50 years at the University of Leicester, we have been exploring the Universe via astronomy; since 1993 the Earth and since 1995 the planets and Mars in particular. In 2018 the University will contribute instruments to the ExoMars mission that will attempt to answer the question of past or present life on Mars.”

Professor Sims added that the University of Leicester’s space research fed directly into postgraduate research as well as impacting on undergraduate education and on outreach programs in schools, colleges and the wider community. The pioneering work of the University in Physics and Astronomy also led to the creation of the National Space Centre in Leicester.

Professor Sims said: “Given its major roles in the Mercury Bepi-Colombo mission and ExoMars Leicester is becoming known as one of the European leaders in planetary instrumentation. We now have thriving postgraduate research in planetary science and particularly Mars. There is an indirect link to undergraduate courses e.g. Space and Planetary Instrumentation, Life in the Universe.”

The ExoMars instruments have been funded to date by the Science and Technology Facilities Council; funding of the flight instruments will be via the UK Space Agency.

What is ExoMars?

ExoMars is the first mission to attempt to obtain samples at a depth of 1-2m below the surface of Mars where they are protected from radiation and oxidants thought to exist on the surface, and both of which would destroy/heavily degrade complex organic compounds

Mission Instrument Timeline:

2011 Instrument Software Simulators
2013 Qualification Model instruments (to fully qualify instruments for design and survival en route to, and on, Mars)
2014 Flight Model Instruments (the actual instruments that will go to Mars)
2018 Launch
2019 Landing and Science Results

University of Leicester involvement in ExoMars:

The University of Leicester is involved in constructing hardware for three instruments on ExoMars:

1. The Life Marker Chip (LMC): Professor Mark Sims, from the University of Leicester, is Principal Investigator leading the international team. The aim of the instrument is to look for organic molecules that might be associated with life, or meteoritic infall of organics onto the surface.

2. X-ray Diffraction Instrument (XRD): Dr Richard Ambrosi from the University of Leicester is leading the team to build the X-ray CCD based focal plane of this instrument in conjunction with Ian Hutchinson. The instrument is led by Italy and looks at mineralogy and elemental composition of the regolith (soil) and rocks.

3. Raman: Dr Ian Hutchinson of the University of Leicester is leading a team to build the optical CCD-based focal plane of this instrument. The instrument as a whole is led by Spain. Its aim is to look at mineralogy and possibly detect organics (dependent on their concentration) of the regolith (soil) and rocks.

In addition, the University of Leicester has science involvement in two other ExoMars instruments (Pancam and CLUPI) and the University scientists are bidding for a science role in instruments being flown on the 2016 Orbiter mission which will examine the planet from orbit.

SPIN-OFFS FROM SPACE:

Aurora research has resulted in patents, commercial applications and unforeseen benefits. Listed below are just a few examples of the program’s spin-outs in fields ranging from human mobility to environmental resources.

* Technology developed for ExoMars is helping to clean and extract oil deposits in less time ““ and using less water ““ than current methods. Two-thirds of the Earth’s petroleum lies in deposits such as oil sands which are difficult to retrieve. They are usually mined and extracted using a hot water and flotation step but the process leaves substantial amounts of water, contaminated by organic compounds, sitting in settling pools for years. ExoMars scientists at Imperial College London (Prof. Mark Sephton) in conjunction with University of Leicester and Cranfield University as part of the LMC project came up with an innovative solution. State-of- the-art components for detecting organic matter on Mars require water-based solvents to extract ‘molecular fossils’ from rocks. The extraction uses an advanced surfactant technology that is readily transferable to terrestrial applications and can reduce the time needed for the water recycling process to days or weeks. These surfactants also scavenge organic compounds from water and are so environmentally benign they are actually edible.

* The Life Marker Chip (LMC) instrument is designed to detect trace levels of multiple organic molecular targets ““ biomarkers of life ““ in samples of Martian rock and soil while, at the same time operating in extreme environments. Developed for ExoMars by scientists at the University of Leicester, Cranfield University (Prof. David Cullen) and Imperial College London, the LMC could be developed to provide advanced medical diagnostics technology that can detect the presence of diseases and antibodies. The LMC can also detect molecular pollutants, leading to a number of possible uses within the environmental sector, as well as security applications through detecting illicit drugs and chemical or biological agents.

* Magna Parva Ltd, based in Leicester, is applying engineering know-how gained from ExoMars to a number of different challenges. These include modifying the design of beverage cans so that less material is used during manufacture. The company’s work with a global beverage can maker would allow raw material costs to be reduced by 12% ““ a huge potential impact since the global consumption of canned beverages alone is around 270 billion units each year. Apart from possible annual savings of around £100 million in ten years time, the innovation also benefits the environment. Magna Parva and the University of Leicester were shortlisted for the Lord Stafford Award for Innovation in Development in 2009.

* Robotic technology intended for Mars could soon be helping to transport passengers and goods at airport terminals on Earth. A consortium of academics and industry, led by Wiltshire-based company SciSys, successfully demonstrated an autonomous Mars rover prototype and adapted the system for use in airports. It will allow people with reduced mobility to use smart devices to remotely request transportation. The underlying control software was the result of STFC-funded work and a prototype has been developed, courtesy of the EU sponsored FP6 program. This was demonstrated in a live trial in December

Business and industry involvement with instruments being developed with Leicester scientists:

Magna Parva. e2V CCDs
Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. Fiber optic image relay system for LMC.
QinetiQ radiation testing of components for LMC
Scisys software consultancy for LMC

Bridget: Astrium’s Mars Rover Engineering Development Model

Bridget, Astrium’s Mars Rover Engineering Development Model was ‘created’ by Astrium in the UK to investigate a number of areas where engineering solutions were required for Europe’s ExoMars mission to Mars in 2018. She has been used extensively for the development and testing of the locomotion, suspension and steering systems and was then reconfigured to incorporate flight performance stereo cameras and an autonomous navigation system. She has handed over most of the development work and testing to her ‘sons’ or successors, Bruno and Bradley, but she still helps out when the payload or workload is too heavy for them!

Through the development work carried out on Bridget, the ExoMars rover will be far more autonomous than current rovers, able to move faster and select its own route to the next point of interest, making best use of the terrain. This means that, once given the next ‘target’, the rover can make its own way there, with no further control commands. This feature is particularly useful when signals or commands from Earth can, in the worst case, take up to 20 minutes to get to Mars.

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