August 4, 2010
The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have selected the scientific instruments for their first joint Mars mission. Scheduled for 2016, it will study the chemical makeup of the martian atmosphere, including methane. Discovered in 2003, methane could point to life on the Red Planet.
NASA and ESA have embarked on a joint program of martian exploration, an unprecedented new alliance for future ventures to Mars. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is the first in a planned series of joint missions leading to the return of a sample from the surface of Mars. Scientists worldwide were invited to propose the spacecraft's instruments.
"To fully explore Mars, we want to marshal all the talents we can on Earth," said 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."
"We got our first sniff of the gas with Mars Express in 2003; NASA has since clearly confirmed this," Southwood said. "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?"
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 they will be developed by international teams of scientists and engineers on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Independently, NASA and ESA have made amazing discoveries up to this point," said Ed Weiler, from 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 next ExoMars mission, scheduled for 2018, will consist 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 toward a joint Mars sample-return mission in the 2020s.
The selected science instruments are:
Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer (MATMOS) — an infrared spectrometer to detect low concentrations of molecular constituents of the atmosphere. Principal investigator is Paul Wennberg from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Participating countries are the United States and Canada.
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. Principal investigator is Ann Vandaele from the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in Brussels, Belgium. Participating countries are Belgium, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.
ExoMars Climate Sounder (EMCS) — an infrared radiometer to provide daily global measurements of dust, water vapor, and chemical species in the atmosphere to aid the analysis of the spectrometer data. Principal investigator is John Schofield from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Participating countries are the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
High-resolution Stereo Color Imager (HiSCI) — a camera to provide four-color stereo imaging at 2-meter resolution per pixel over an 8.5-kilometer swathe. Principal investigator is Alfred McEwen from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Participating countries are the United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and France.
Mars Atmospheric Global Imaging Experiment (MAGIE) — a wide-angle multispectral camera to provide global images in support of the other instruments. Principal investigator is Bruce Cantor from the Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, California. Participating countries are the United States, Belgium, France, and the Russian Federation.