MSSL designs 'eyes' of robot scientist bound for Mars

Jun 15, 2010
ExoMars Rover (Credit: ESA)

(PhysOrg.com) -- A planetary scientist from University College London is designing the 'eyes' of a rover that will search for signs of life on Mars.

Professor Andrew Coates from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) is leading the team designing the Panoramic Camera, or PanCam, aboard the ExoMars rover.

Professor Coates's team includes colleagues Craig Leff and Dr Andrew Griffiths from MSSL, Dr Claire Cousins from the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck, and a host of UCL experts and engineers.

ExoMars, a joint mission between the (ESA) and NASA, is a flagship project in the UK Space Agency’s science and exploration programme.

The 'robotic scientist' will search for evidence of past and present life and study the local environment of the Red Planet to understand when and where conditions that could have supported the development of life may have prevailed.

Unlike previous US-designed rovers, ExoMars will carry a radar able to search for scientifically promising locations under the surface of and a drill to extract samples from the ground that will be fed to its on-board laboratory.

The PanCam will help guide ExoMars across the rocky surface, be used by geologists to understand the history and structure of the planet, and help identify the best sites for drilling.

Professor Coates said: "PanCam provides the eyes of the ExoMars rover from the top of the mast. But as well as providing the three-dimensional context for all the other measurements on the rover, via stereo and high resolution images, PanCam has important scientific goals of its own.

"First, we will be able to look at the geology of the rocks both near to the rover and far away from it - and also look at the samples from the drill before analysis. This is done by analysing the reflected sunlight with filters - 12 on each 'eye' and three to provide high-resolution colour images. All this can be done from a distance at the rover's vantage point.

"This will allow the ExoMars science team to select the next locations of interest to drive the rover to, and also to decide which of the drilled samples to perform detailed analysis on. In some cases the analytical instruments can only analyse a few samples so it's important to get that right.

"Second, we can use sunrise and sunset on Mars to determine the amount of water in the Martian atmosphere between the Sun and the observation point. This will be important in constraining models of the Martian atmosphere and the all-important presence of water.

"The technical challenges of sending cameras to Mars are significant - off the shelf is not an option due to the space environment (radiation and vacuum) and to the severe temperatures on the Martian surface. A warm day may be 0-20 degrees celsius but at night it can be as cold as -120, a severe challenge for the team. Our three cameras have to work at -55, survive -120 and not affect the Martian environment.

"So we have designed an optical bench which sits on top of the rover's mast, containing the three cameras and providing a 'planetary protection' barrier to the world (Mars) outside.

"It's exciting that we at UCL lead an excellent and highly accomplished international team, including German, Swiss, Austrian, US and UK colleagues, on one of the key rover instruments. We hope to send back some really inspiring 3D images from Mars."

PanCam is one of nine instruments on board ExoMars, which is scheduled to launch in 2018.

Explore further: The latest observations of interstellar particles

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

UC-Santa Barbara to direct Mars soil test

Dec 14, 2005

The European Space Agency announced Tuesday its support of a program that will include development of an instrument for testing deep soil samples on Mars.

Europe asks price of Mars rover

Jul 26, 2007

The European Space Agency has asked Cannes, France, satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space to quote a price on the construction of a Mars rover.

NASA funds search for past life on Mars

Jan 18, 2007

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has awarded a $750,000 grant to a U.S. researcher for help in searching for evidence of past life on Mars.

ExoMars: European robotic mission to Mars

Jun 02, 2010

A development model of the Mars Rover, called Bridget, was on display at the University of Leicester today providing invited schoolchildren as well as staff and students with an exciting glimpse into the shape ...

Recommended for you

The latest observations of interstellar particles

2 hours ago

With all the news about Voyager 1 leaving the heliosphere and entering interstellar space you might think that the probe is the first spacecraft to detect interstellar particles. That isn't entirely true, ...

Hepatitis C virus proteins in space

2 hours ago

Two researchers at Technische Universität München have won the 'International Space Station Research Competition' with their project 'Egypt Against Hepatitis C Virus.' As their prize, the scientists will ...

Very Long Baseline Array takes radio image of Voyager 1

4 hours ago

The image above is a radio image of Voyager 1. It was taken from the Very Long Baseline Array, which is a collection of 10 radio telescopes scattered from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands. It captures the faint ...

Lunar explorers will walk at higher speeds than thought

17 hours ago

Anyone who has seen the movies of Neil Armstrong's first bounding steps on the moon couldn't fail to be intrigued by his unusual walking style. But, contrary to popular belief, the astronaut's peculiar walk ...

User comments : 0