30 May 2008

Next step to Mars begins at The Open University

European Space Agency mission to Mars

European Space Agency mission to Mars

Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact it's cold as hell
And there's no one there to raise them if you did
And all this science I don't understand
It's just my job five days a week
A rocket man, a rocket man

Elton John, Rocket Man © 1972 Dick James Music Limited

The Open University has been awarded £1 million from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to develop two scientific instruments for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission to the surface of Mars in 2014.

Professor John Zarnecki

Professor John Zarnecki

The director of the Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR), Professor John Zarnecki says the instruments being designed and developed will support the ExoMars mission targeted to finding out more about the habitability of Mars.

Professor Zarnecki was a lead scientist on the successful ESA Huygens probe that landed on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005 (Cassini-Huygens, NASA/ESA). It is the most distant landing by any manmade spacecraft (1.5 billion km), and the first instrument to touch Titan's soil, the Surface Science Package, was built by The Open University.

He says of ExoMars: “The work we are beginning now at The Open University is paving the way with solid science for future manned mission to Mars. It will lift the lid on the secrets of the Red Planet to allow us to answer age-old questions about life on Mars and whether a manned mission is possible. It will also answer some of Elton John’s questions.”

The ESA mission has three objectives:

1. to characterise the environment on Mars from an astrobiology point of view

2. To search for extinct or existing life

3. To characterise the hazards for future missions such as dust and radiation

The OU is designing and developing the Ultra-Violet and Visible Spectrometer (UVIS), an instrument that will for the first time, measure ultraviolet radiation on the surface of Mars. UV radiation levels on Mars have only been modelled, never directly measured, which is needed to prepare for astronauts landing on Mars.

Also, OU space scientists are designing and developing the Advanced Environmental Package (AEP) which is a complete weather station for the Red Planet.

Professor Zarnecki is the Principle Investigator on these instruments with Mark Leese as Project Manager. Dr Manish Patel (Planetary & Space Sciences Research Institute - PSSRI) is managing the design and development of the UVIS instrument and Dr Martin Towner leading the development of the AEP jointly with Oxford University.

In addition, PSSRI’s Dr Andrew Ball will research the entry and descent science to measure how the ExoMars probe will decelerate into the Martian atmosphere to tell the mission controllers the density of the alien atmosphere.

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