04 Aug 2010

Open University to play a role in next stage of Mars exploration

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have embarked on a joint programme to study the chemical composition of the atmosphere of Mars from 2016. They have just announced the providers of five scientific instruments for the first mission, including a consortium in which The Open University has a major role.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission, scheduled for 2016, will be the first of three joint robotic missions to the Red Planet. The first mission will study the chemicals in the Martian atmosphere to establish whether Mars is, ever was, or could become a living planet. ExoMars will also relay additional communications for a Mars surface mission in 2018.

NASA and ESA invited scientists worldwide to propose instruments for use on the spacecraft, and from the 19 proposals received, five were finally selected on the basis of the best scientific value and lowest risk.

The Open University is a member of the SOIR-NOMAD consortium, led by Dr Ann Carine Vandaele of the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy. The consortium will build a High Resolution Solar Occultation and Nadir Spectrometer, which is designed to detect trace gases such as methane in the Martian atmosphere and map where they are over the entire planet.

Under the leadership of Dr Manish Patel, an Aurora Academic Fellow, The Open University will provide the Ultraviolet and Visible Spectrometer (UVIS) channel for the instrument. Dr Patel said: “The OU brings valuable expertise in short wavelength observation and instrument design to complement the longer wavelength expertise of the consortium, and our role will be to provide the UVIS instrument for SOIR-NOMAD in order to measure ozone and dust/ice clouds in the Martian atmosphere”.

Editor's Notes
1. NASA and ESA’s plan of cooperation consists of two Mars cooperative missions in 2016 and 2018, and a later joint sample return mission. See links (right) for further information.

2. The Open University’s contribution will build on work originally intended for the ExoMars Rover and Lander. This work can be applied to the Orbiter, with some small modifications. It builds upon a growing area of expertise in the University, including Martian spectroscopy, optical instrumentation and atmospheric modeling.

3. The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, some 1,300 are postgraduate research students.

The latest edition of the Open University’s Research Highlights brochure can be downloaded from:

Open Research Online (ORO), the University’s freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: ORO has around 35,000 visitors from over 170 different countries each month, and is currently ranked the fifth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

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