“ExoMars” -Europe’s Robotic 2018 Mission to Search for Life on Mars


ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) is a European-led robotic mission to Mars, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. It is part of ESA's Aurora programme for robotic exploration of the Solar System and its aim is to further characterise the chemical, geological and possible biological environment on Mars in preparation for robotic missions and then human exploration. Data from the mission will also provide invaluable input for broader studies of exobiology – the search for life on other planets.

Mark Sims, Professor of Astrobiology and Space Instrumentation in the Space Research Centre, University of Leicester, said: "ExoMars is a key mission in exploration of the planet Mars. It will attempt to gather samples from a depth 1-2m below the surface where they are protected from radiation and oxidants thought to exist on the surface – both of which would destroy/heavily degrade complex organic compounds.

“It is a difficult process as we still don't really know what alien life is. That said we now have techniques to look for carbon-water based Life within the Solar System and will soon be able to detect, in 10-20 years, the signs of such Life in the atmospheres of planets round other stars.

“It is a process that demands blending a large swathe of scientific knowledge and techniques and is very much interdisciplinary and cross-cutting in nature. In addition some of the technologies and techniques developed have down-to-Earth applications from green chemistry through to potentially improving healthcare in the Third World.”

Professor Sims is confident that within the next ten to twenty years we will have a definitive answer as to whether or not Life exists outside of Earth in the Solar System and perhaps beyond, either in the past or present. Using the example of the extreme conditions under which we can find bacteria on this planet, Professor Sims will explain why bacterial type life will dominate any planetary ecosystem and therefore should be searched for.

“We are entering an era when we might start to answer one of the biggest questions we have as a species: Are we alone in the Universe?”

The Life Marker Chip (LMC) instrument is designed to detect trace levels of multiple organic molecular targets – biomarkers of life – in samples of Martian rock and soil while, at the same time operating in extreme environments. Developed for ExoMars, the LMC could be developed to provide advanced medical diagnostics technology that can detect the presence of diseases and antibodies. The LMC can also detect molecular pollutants, leading to a number of possible uses within the environmental sector, as well as security applications through detecting illicit drugs and chemical or biological agents.

Bridget, Astrium's Mars Rover Engineering Development Model was 'created' by Astrium in the UK to investigate a number of areas where robotic engineering solutions were required for Europe's ExoMars mission to Mars in 2018. She has been used extensively for the development and testing of the locomotion, suspension and steering systems and was then reconfigured to incorporate flight performance stereo cameras and an autonomous navigation system. She has handed over most of the development work and testing to her 'sons' or successors, Bruno and Bradley, but she still helps out when the payload or workload is too heavy for them!

Through the development work carried out on Bridget, the ExoMars rover will be far more autonomous than current rovers, able to move faster and select its own route to the next point of interest, making best use of the terrain. This means that, once given the next 'target', the rover can make its own way there, with no further control commands. This feature is particularly useful when signals or commands from Earth can, in the worst case, take up to 20 minutes to get to Mars.

"This is a truly exciting opportunity to explore Mars and look for extra-terrestrial life and on Friday 4 June, we are announcing the University of Leicester teams preparing for the ExoMars Flight Model Build programme."

Casey Kazan via University of Leicester 

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