ExoMars is part of the European Space Agency’s Aurora programme and lays the foundations for future human exploration of the Solar System.
Its aim is to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for evidence of environments that may have once, and perhaps could still, support life. It will also assist in preparing for other robotic missions, including a Mars Sample Return mission, and possible future human exploration. Data from the mission will also provide invaluable input for broader studies of martian geochemistry, environmental science and exobiology - the search for evidence of life on other planets.
It is planned that ExoMars, now likely to be part of a joint ESA-NASA mission in 2018, will be one half of this two-rover mission that will traverse the surface of Mars. As the first European rover to do so it will carry a unique drill that can burrow up to two metres into the martian surface allowing the rover’s scientific instruments to analyse and sample the soil, determine its mineral content and composition, and search for evidence of whether past environments could once have harboured life.
The UK is the second largest contributor to the ExoMars mission. At the ESA ministerial meeting in November 2008, the UK confirmed extra funding to bring its contribution to €165 million. This will contribute both to the 2018 rover mission and a likely preceding orbiter mission in 2016. The UK also confirmed funding of €6.5 million to the Mars Robotic Exploration Preparation Programme component. As a result of its support, the UK is involved in many aspects of the 2018 mission and is responsible for building the rover.
The rover will roam around the Martian surface by using electrical power generated from its solar arrays.
The rover's software will have a degree of 'intelligence' and autonomy to make certain decisions on the ground and will navigate using optical sensors.
PanCam (the UK-led panoramic camera system on the rover) will provide imagery of Mars’ surface that will allow reconstruction by 3-D digital terrain mapping. It will also provide context for drill sampling and rover instrumentation.
Astrium Limited is building the rover and there is considerable UK involvement from a number of academic institutions with the on-board instruments:
PanCam is led by the UK with scientists from University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) working with the University of Aberystwyth, Birkbeck College and Leicester University. The wide-angle cameras will provide stereo information while the high-resolution camera will enable close-up images of martian structures and features.
Leicester University, Bradford University and STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, are key players in the development of the CCD camera on the Raman Laser Spectrometer which can detect the presence of chemical compounds including minerals and also specific types of “biomarkers” – chemicals indicative of past or present life – that are produced by primitive micro-organisms to enable them to adapt to life in extreme environments. Such organisms are well-known on Earth and probably represent the most likely form of life that could have existed on Mars.
Scientists from Leicester University also provided the X-ray CCD detectors on the X-Ray Diffractometer which will identify the mineral content of rock samples. This will be the first time that such an instrument has been used on another planet.
The UK-led Life Marker Chip instrument is unique in space instrumentation in that it is applying previously-used techniques in medical diagnosis to search for specific molecules associated with the presence of life. Scientists from Cranfield University and the University of Leicester are developing the instrument which, if it can overcome the many technical obstacles involved, should be part of the instrument package on the rover.
For further information, visit ESA's Aurora website (link opens in a new window).