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ESA and NASA pack their bags for Mars

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August 4, 2010

An artist's impression of the ESA/NASA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (Image: ESA)

An artist's impression of the ESA/NASA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (Image: ESA)

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The first joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA that will study the chemical makeup of the martian atmosphere is scheduled for 2016. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter marks an unprecedented alliance between the two agencies for future ventures to Mars and is the first in a planned series of joint missions leading to the return of a sample from the surface of the Red Planet. Scientists worldwide were invited to propose the spacecraft’s instruments and ESA and NASA have now made their selections.

“To fully explore Mars, we want to marshal all the talents we can on Earth,” says David Southwood, ESA Director for Science and Robotic Exploration. “Now NASA and ESA are combining forces for the joint ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission. Among its objectives is to characterize the planet’s atmosphere, and in particular search for trace gases like methane.”

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will map the variation of martian methane with unprecedented...

Discovered in 2003, methane could point to life on Mars.

“We got our first sniff of the gas with Mars Express in 2003; NASA has since clearly confirmed this. Mapping methane allows us to investigate further that most important of questions: is Mars a living planet, and if not, can or will it become so in the future?” said Southwood.

ESA and NASA have now selected five science instruments from the 19 proposals submitted in January 2010 in response to an Announcement of Opportunity for the first mission. They were judged to have the best scientific value and lowest risk, and will be developed by international teams of scientists and engineers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Two agencies are better than one

"Independently, NASA and ESA have made amazing discoveries up to this point," says Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Working together, we'll reduce duplication of effort, expand our capabilities and see results neither ever could have achieved alone."

In addition to the Trace Gas Orbiter, the 2016 mission will carry Europe’s entry, descent and landing demonstration vehicle. The whole mission will be launched on a NASA rocket.

The selected science instruments are:

  • Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer (MATMOS): An infrared spectrometer to detect very low concentrations of molecular constituents of the atmosphere.
  • High-resolution solar occultation and nadir spectrometer (SOIR/NOMAD): An infrared spectrometer to detect trace constituents in the atmosphere and to map their location on the surface.
  • ExoMars Climate Sounder (EMCS): An infrared radiometer to provide daily global measurements of dust, water vapour and chemical species in the atmosphere to aid the analysis of the spectrometer data.
  • High-resolution Stereo Color Imager (HiSCI): A camera to provide 4-colour stereo imaging at 2 m resolution per pixel over an 8.5 km swathe.
  • Mars Atmospheric Global Imaging Experiment (MAGIE): A wide-angle multi-spectral camera to provide global images in support of the other instruments.

An artist's impression of the ESA/NASA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (Image: ESA)

The next ExoMars mission, scheduled for 2018, consists of a European rover with a drill, an American rover capable of caching selected samples for potential future return to Earth and a NASA landing system, using a NASA launcher.

These activities are designed to serve as the foundation of a cooperative program to increase science return and move the two agencies towards a joint Mars sample-return mission in the 2020s.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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