A window on the ExoMars rover's search for Martian life
5 September 2017Anyone interested in the scientific exploration of Mars and the search for life on the Red Planet will want to read a special issue of the journal Astrobiology. This collection of papers includes one dedicated to the objectives of ESA's rover mission on ExoMars 2020 and in-depth summaries of the nine scientific instruments carried by the roving vehicle.
Less than three years from now, one of ESA's most ambitious scientific endeavours will blast off and head for the planet Mars. If all goes according to plan, the European-built rover and a Russian surface platform will be delivered safely onto the planet's orange, dusty plains.
The landing site will be chosen because of the high potential for finding well-preserved organic material. Two sites are currently on the short list for selection.
|ExoMars Rover – front view, annotated.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
|ExoMars Rover – rear view, annotated.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
The ExoMars rover's primary task will be to search for evidence that life may have once existed on the Red Planet. The rover will be equipped with a drill that is designed to collect material from inside rocky outcrops and at depths of up to two metres beneath the surface.
The drill includes an infrared spectrometer to characterise the mineralogy in the borehole. Once collected, a sample will be delivered to the rover's analytical laboratory, which will study its mineralogical and chemical composition.
This subsurface sampling capability will provide the best opportunity yet to discover the chemical signatures of Martian life – past or present. Since the thin Martian atmosphere offers little protection from radiation at the surface, samples of material retrieved from underground are more likely to include recognisable biomarkers.
The rover is expected to travel several kilometres during its seven month mission.
"Up to now there was no published reference about the mission of the ExoMars rover in the scientific literature," said Jorge Vago, ESA's Project Scientist for ExoMars and the Guest Editor for the special issue.
|Astrobiology, Volume 17, issue 6-7|
"Several scientists had asked for articles they could cite on their papers, but the ExoMars Science Working Team wanted to wait until the mission was on a secure programmatic footing and configuration before committing to producing the collection of articles.
"As Guest Editor I had to chase everyone for their contributions, but luckily the instrument teams responded with enthusiasm. The papers were submitted during the second half of 2016. Then, in December, the ESA Ministerial Council confirmed the ESA participating states' support for ExoMars.
"We are very happy that this comprehensive set of articles - one covering the mission and one for each of the rover instruments - has been published in a 'double issue', combining June and July 2017, of Astrobiology. We hope it will become a reference that people will consult to learn more about the ExoMars rover.
"In time we hope to produce something similar for the surface platform mission and its payload."
Astrobiology, Volume 17, issue 6-7