23/03/2016

ExoMars and The Atmospheric Science Group


The first phase of the ExoMars programme, the ExoMars 2016 mission, left the Earth last 14 March and, after completing the manoeuvres to get into the correct trajectory, it got its way to Mars, where it arrived last October the 19th. The Atmospheric Science Group of the Luleå University of Technology will be very attentive to the course of the mission, since it is involved in several senses in this mission that will push the limits of the knowledge about Mars environment, and which is going to undertake expressly the direct search for signs of life on the planet.
ExoMars 2016 spacecraft lifted off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on a Proton-M rocket from whose last stage (the Breeze-M) it separated successfully some ten hours after, only to start its seven months’ journey to Mars. It is composed of two elements, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli Entry, Descend and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), that separatde from each other three days before the arrival to Mars. TGO will then enter its definitive (by November 2017) orbit, from which it will be operating for at least five years detecting the presence in Martian atmosphere of some trace gases (species that suppose less than 1% of the atmospheric composition), among which methane is of a special interest, for it is a most typical biological by-product, being more than 90% of that present in Earth’s atmosphere a result of metabolism. ExoMars is a programme conceived to try and ascertain if there are signs of past or present life on Mars, so the study of the methane is a core issue of the mission. Nevertheless, some geochemical processes can act as a methane source, so the monitoring of the patterns in the methane variations to be performed by means of TGO will provide valuable clues to advance along this line of investigation.
Well, TGO mounts four Instruments, and Professor Javier Martín-Torres, leader of the Atmospheric Science Group, is member as Co-Investigator of the science team of one of them, namely, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (ACS), composed of three infrared spectrometers to study the chemistry and structure of the Martian atmosphere. So here we find a first, active, and direct participation in the mission. Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery (NOMAD), Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS), and Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND), are the other three instruments on board the orbiter.
On the other hand, we must take into account the role of the other component of ExoMars 2016, the Schiaparelli Entry, Descend and landing Demonstrator Module (EDM). Its main function is to test the technology developed by ESA with a view to perform controlled landings in further missions, the next of which will be the second phase of the programme, that is to say, ExoMars 2020. This one is composed of a rover that has to reach the Martian surface together with a Surface Platform, in which the earlier will be “wrapped” only to be released once they are safely over the ground. Then, the rover will initiate its long traverse to study the Martian environment in depth (this is not a figurative assertion; it carries a drill with which it can get ground samples from up to 2 meters under the surface) with its set of instruments.
The Swedish instrument HABIT will be mounted in the Surface Platform, from which it will monitor the water cycle exchange between the soil and the atmosphere as well as the environmental parameters for at least one Earth year (duration of the “nominal mission”). Professor Javier Martín-Torres again, together with Professor María Paz Zorzano, PI and Co-PI respectively of HABIT Science Team, participate in addition as Co-I’s of the rover’s instrument ISEM (Infrared Spectrometer for ExoMars), one of the instruments of the rover whose basic purpose is to analyse remotely the composition of the soil around to help select preferential targets to be studied in more detail.
Of course, each and every member of Atmospheric Science Group is working in a way or another in the development of HABIT, whose success relies initially in the capability of the ExoMars 2018 to reach the surface of Mars safely, and therefore in the previous success of EDM, so ExoMars 2016 is a first milestone for the way to the planet that the whole Group is going through.