Mars 2020 Rover is Going to be Taking a Chunk of Mars Back to… Mars?

In July of 2020, the Mars 2020 rover – the latest from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program – will begin its long journey to the Red Planet. Hot on the heels of the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, the Mars 2020 rover will attempt to answer some of the most pressing questions we have about Mars. Foremost among these is whether or not the planet had habitable conditions in the past, and whether or not microbial life existed there.

To this end, the Mars 2020 rover will obtain drill samples of Martian rock and set them aside in a cache. Future crewed missions may retrieve these samples and bring them back to Earth for analysis. However, in a recent announcement, NASA indicated that a piece of a Martian meteor will accompany the Mars 2020 rover back to Mars, which will be used to calibrate the rover’s high-precious laser scanner.

This laser scanner is known as the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument. The laser’s resolution is capable of illuminating even the finest features in rock samples, which could include fossilized microorganisms. But in order to achieve this, the laser requires a calibration target so that the science team can fine-tune its settings.

Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, SHERLOC uses spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life. Credit: NASA

Ordinarily, these calibration targets involve pieces of rock, metal or glass, samples that are the result of a complex geological history. However, when addressing the SHERLOC’s calibration needs, JPL scientists came up with a rather innovative idea. For billions of years, Mars has experienced impacts that have sent pieces of its surface into orbit. In some cases, those pieces came to Earth in the form of meteorites, some of which have been identified.

While these meteorites are rare and not identical to the geologically diverse samples the Mars 2020 rover will collect, they are well-suited for target practice. As Luther Beegle of JPL, the principle investigator for SHERLOC, said in a recent NASA press statement:

“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim. By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”

In this respect, the Mars 2020 rover is in good company. For example, Curiosity’s used its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCham) instrument – which relies on laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) – to determine the elemental compositions of rock and soil samples it has obtained. Similarly, the Opportunity rover’s Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) allowed this rover to detect the composition of rocks from a distance.

Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, SHERLOC is unique in that it will be the first instrument deployed to Mars that uses Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy. Raman spectroscopy consists of subjecting materials to light in the visible, near infrared, or near ultraviolet range and measuring how the photons respond. Based on how their energy levels shift up or down, scientists are able to determine the presence of certain elements.

Fluorescence spectroscopy relies on ultraviolet lasers to excite the electrons in carbon-based compounds, which causes chemicals that are known to form in the presence of life (i.e. biosignatures) to glow. SHERLOC will also photograph the rocks it studies, which will allow the science team to map the chemical signatures it finds across the surface of Mars.

For their purposes, the SHERLOC team needed a sample that would be solid enough to withstand the intense vibrations caused by launch and landing. They also needed one that contained the right chemicals to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity to biosignatures. With the help of the Johnson Space Center and the Natural History Museum in London, they ultimately decided on a sample from the Sayh al Uhaymir 008 meteorite (aka. SaU008).

This meteorite, which was found in Oman in 1999, was more rugged that other samples and could be sliced without the rest of the meteorite flaking. As a result, SaU008 will be the first Martian meteorite sample that helps scientists look for past signs of life on Mars. It will also be the first Martian meteorite to have a piece of itself returned to the surface of Mars – though technically not the first to be sent back.

A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars placed inside an oxygen plasma cleaner, which removes organics from the outside of surfaces. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

That honor goes to Zagami, a meteorite retrieved in Nigeria in 1962, which had a piece of itself sent back to Mars aboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) in 1999. That mission ended in 2007, so this chunk has been floating around in orbit of Mars ever since. In addition, the team behind Mars 2020‘s SuperCam instrument will also be adding a Martian meteorite for their own calibration tests.

Along with bits of SaU008, the Mars 2020 payload will include samples of advanced materials. Aside from also being used to calibrate SHERLOC, these materials will be tested to see how they hold up to Martian weather and radiation. If they prove to be tough enough to survive on the Martian surface, these materials could be used in the manufacture of space suits, gloves and helmets for future astronauts.

As Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, put it:

“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface. It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”

With every robotic mission sent to Mars, NASA and other space agencies are working towards the day when astronauts’ boots will finally touch down on the Red Planet. When the first crewed mission to Mars are conducted (currenty scheduled for the 2030s), they will be following in the tracks of some truly intrepid robotic explorers!

Further Reading: NASA

Canadian Micro-Rover and Lander “Northern Light” Aim for Launch to Mars in 2018

The first Canadian mission to Mars could be blasting off towards the Red Planet in just three years time. At least, that is what Thoth Technology, a Canadian aerospace company from Pembroke, Ontario, hopes to accomplish. And two days ago, they launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise the 1.1 million dollars needed to pay for all the hardware needed to make the mission happen.

If it is successful, it would be first Canadian mission to the surface of Mars.

The project for this Canadian mission would involve sending the Northern Light lander and Beaver rover in space and land them on Mars. Once there, the Beaver rover will be deployed and begin conducting surveys of the Martian surface, alongside the many other robotic rovers and orbiters studying the Martian landscape.

“I think it’s important to do big things,” said Ben Quine, principal investigator for the mission. “Mars is the only other habitable planet in the solar system, and if we want to survive, we need to be a multi-planet species.”

Quine is the technical director and chair of the board at Thoth Technology and a professor of space engineering at York University, which is a partner on the project, houses a lot of the space testing facilities, and will analyze the data from the mission.

Northern Light Lander and Robotic Arm (concept art). Credit: Mars Rocks/Indiegogo
Northern Light Lander and Robotic Arm (concept art). Credit: Mars Rocks/Indiegogo

The main goal of the mission is to expand upon the efforts being made by NASA’s Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity rovers, which have only explored a half dozen sites on Mars. By exploring more areas, they hope to find other signs of life on the harsh landscape, and using knowledge gleaned from studies in the Canadian Arctic no less.

According to Quine, in Antarctica and the Canadian Arctic, photosynthetic microbes can be found in a layer a millimeter or two below the surface of the rock. Here, they are protected from the harshest of the sun’s UV rays, but can still use sunlight to produce energy.

Northern Light will look for similar life on Mars by using the lander’s robotic arm to grind away the surface of rocks. It will then use a device called a photometer to scan for different shades of green that may indicate the presence of photosynthetic organisms. Quine and his colleagues also hope to determine what future technologies will be required to sustain a future human presence.

“If we are serious about living on Mars,” he said, “we need to explore it much more thoroughly. We probably need hundreds of landers to pepper the surface prior to sending people so we know exactly what it is that we’re up against, where we’d find things like minerals and where we’d want to live.”

Intrinsic to the company’s plan is the widespread exploration of Mars using low cost, off-the-shelf technology. For example, the Northern Light lander probe has a mass under 50 kg (including payload) and is made of an advanced composite material that includes thermal shielding and shock absorption. The probe includes solar arrays to generate power for the instrumentation and lander avionics.

The Beaver Rover prototype. Credit: Thoth Technologies/Indiegogo
The Beaver Rover prototype. Credit: Thoth Technologies/Indiegogo

As for the Beaver rover, its small size and low-cost mask the fact that it is like no other rover that has ever gone to Mars. For one thing, it weighs just six kilograms (13 pounds). In comparison, NASA’s Curiosity rover weighs in at a hefty 900 kilograms (1980 pounds, close to an imperial ton), forcing it to rely largely on nuclear power to lug its bulk around.

The NASA rovers, which are controlled from Earth, also move very slowly and cover only a few dozen meters per day because their commands take 15 minutes to reach Mars from Earth. By contrast, the Beaver rover is designed to be quicker, in part by being more independent.

“We’re going to embed intelligence into the rover,” Quine said, “and the rover is going to be tasked to drive around and explore the environment using autonomous algorithms built into the rover to determine things like when it should make a maneuver to avoid falling into a hole or run into a rock.”

Quine said he has already spent 12 years working on the project and his team has spent half a million dollars developing and testing prototypes of the lander and micro-rover. They’ve also performed space tests on some of the instruments by flying them on satellites in low-Earth orbit.

Northern Light Ground Station at the Algonquin Radio Observatory. Credit: Mars Rocks/Indiegogo
Northern Light Ground Station at the Algonquin Radio Observatory. Credit: Mars Rocks/Indiegogo

Thoth Technologies also recently spent $1 million leasing and repairing the Algonquin Radio Observatory from the federal government, which they plan to use as a ground station to communicate with the lander and rover when they are on Mars.

As for the tricky task of getting to Mars, Quine and his colleagues hope to barter their way aboard one of the many missions heading to Mars in 2018. These include the joint Russian-European Space Agency ExoMars rover mission and an Indian Space Research Organization mission that will likely include a lander and rover.

In exchange for hitching a ride on one of these rockets, they will collect and relay other agencies’ data from Mars via the ARO ground station, which can collect them at times of day when places like Russia and India are facing away from Mars.

Those who are interested in supporting their campaign are being incentivized with a chance to help choose the landing site for the mission, and will get rewards ranging from a Frisbee for $20 or the chance to name the lander for $1 million.

The company has also launched a social campaign – featuring Ed Robertson of the “Barenaked Ladies” – urging people to create and upload their own “Mars dance” video to marsrocks.ca.

To find out more, check out their promotional video or click on the link below:

Further Reading: Mars Rocks