The long-awaited mission that would remodel our understanding of Mars

Surface of Mars


March 17, 2022, was a tough day for Jorge Vago. A planetary physicist, Vago heads science for a part of the European House Company’s ExoMars program. His group was mere months from launching Europe’s first Mars rover—a objective that they had been working towards for practically twenty years. However on that day, ESA suspended ties with Russia’s area company over the invasion of Ukraine. The launch had been deliberate for Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is leased to Russia.

“They informed us we needed to name the entire thing off,” Vago says. “We had been all grieving.”

It was a painful setback for the beleaguered Rosalind Franklin rover, initially accepted in 2005. Funds woes, companion switches, technical points and the COVID-19 pandemic had all, in flip, precipitated earlier delays. And now, a struggle. “I’ve spent most of my profession making an attempt to get this factor off the bottom,” Vago says. Complicating issues additional, the mission included a Russian-made lander and devices, which the member states of ESA would want funding to interchange. They thought-about many choices, together with merely placing the unused rover in a museum. However then, in November, got here a lifeline, when European analysis ministers pledged 360 million euros to cowl mission bills, together with changing Russian elements.

When the rover lastly does, hopefully, blast off in 2028, it would carry a collection of superior devices—however one specifically might make an enormous scientific influence. Designed to research any carbon-containing materials discovered beneath Mars’s floor, the rover’s next-generation mass spectrometer is the linchpin of a technique to lastly reply probably the most burning query concerning the Crimson Planet: Is there proof of previous or current life?

“There are quite a lot of alternative ways you can seek for life,” says analytical chemist Marshall Seaton, a NASA postdoctoral program fellow on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and coauthor of a paper on planetary analysis within the Annual Assessment of Analytical Chemistry. Maybe the obvious and direct route is solely on the lookout for fossilized microbes. However nonliving chemistry can create deceptively lifelike structures. As an alternative, the mass spectrometer will assist scientists search for molecular patterns which are unlikely to be shaped within the absence of residing biology.

Trying to find the patterns of life, as a substitute of buildings or particular molecules, has an additional benefit in an extraterrestrial atmosphere, Seaton says. “It permits us to not solely search for life as we all know it, however for all times as we don’t comprehend it.”

Artist’s rendition of the Rosalind Franklin rover.
Enlarge / Artist’s rendition of the Rosalind Franklin rover.

ESA/ATG MediaLab

Packing for Mars

At NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart outdoors Washington, DC, planetary scientist William Brinckerhoff reveals off a prototype of the rover’s mass spectrometer, often known as the Mars Natural Molecule Analyzer, or MOMA. Roughly the scale of a carry-on suitcase, the instrument is a labyrinth of wires and metallic. “It’s actually a workhorse,” Brinkerhoff says as his colleague, planetary scientist Xiang Li, adjusts screws on the prototype earlier than demonstrating a carousel that holds samples.

This working prototype is used to research natural molecules in Mars-like soils on Earth. And as soon as the actual MOMA will get to Mars, roughly in 2030, Brinckerhoff and his colleagues will use the prototype—in addition to a pristine copy saved in a Mars-like atmosphere at NASA — to check tweaks to experimental protocols, troubleshoot points that come up in the course of the mission and facilitate interpretation of Mars information.

This newest mass spectrometer can hint its roots again nearly 50 years, to the primary mission that studied Martian soil. For the dual 1976 Viking landers, engineers miniaturized room-size mass spectrometers to roughly the footprint of right now’s desktop printers. The devices had been additionally on board the 2008 Phoenix lander, the 2012 Curiosity rover and later Mars orbiters from China, India, and the US.

Anybody visiting Brinckerhoff’s prototype should first go a show case with a dismantled copy of the Viking instrument on mortgage from the Smithsonian Establishment. “This is sort of a nationwide treasure,” Brinckerhoff says, enthusiastically declaring elements.

Mass spectrometers are indispensable instruments which are used for analytical chemistry in laboratories and different services worldwide. TSA brokers use them to check baggage for explosives on the airport. EPA scientists use them to check consuming water for contaminants. And drugmakers use them to find out chemical buildings of potential new drugs.

Many sorts of mass spectrometers exist, however every “is a three-part instrument,” explains Devin Swiner, an analytical chemist on the pharmaceutical firm Merck. First, the instrument vaporizes molecules into the fuel section, and in addition offers them {an electrical} cost. These charged, or ionized, fuel molecules can then be manipulated with electrical or magnetic fields so that they’ll transfer by means of the instrument.

Second, the instrument types ions by a measurement that scientists can relate to molecular weight, to allow them to decide the quantity and kind of atoms a molecule accommodates. Third, the instrument data all of the “weights” in a pattern together with their relative abundance.

With MOMA aboard, the Rosalind Franklin rover will land at a Martian web site that roughly 4 billion years in the past doubtless had water, a vital ingredient for historic life. The rover’s cameras and different devices will assist to pick out samples and supply context about their atmosphere. A drill will retrieve historic samples from as deep as two meters. Scientists hypothesize that’s far sufficient, Vago says, to be shielded from cosmic radiation on Mars that breaks up molecules “like one million little knives.”

House-bound mass spectrometers have to be rugged and light-weight. A mass spectrometer with MOMA’s capabilities would usually occupy a number of workbenches, but it surely’s been shrunk considerably. “To have the ability to take one thing that may be as huge as a room to the scale of like a toaster or a small suitcase and ship it into area is a really big deal,” Swiner says.