Red planet returns

8 min read

UK-developed technology and software for planetary exploration also has more down-to-earth applications. Stuart Nathan reports

Eight years from now, a US rocket will roar into the skies, bound for Mars. On board will be two rover vehicles: one from the ESA, carrying instruments that will look for signs of past or present life; the other from NASA, which will collect samples that will, a few years later, be sent back to Earth. And it’s certain that, down on Earth, cynics will be saying that we’re firing pound notes into space.

This cynicism has been around for as long as space exploration itself. Satisfying the curiosity of scientists is fine, say the critics. But why not fund technology development on Earth? Why not find a cure for cancer, or a way to solve the energy crisis? For the scientists and engineers who work in planetary exploration, this is meaningless. One set of research goals doesn’t preclude the other, they argue. Without space research, vital technologies wouldn’t be developed as fast. In fact, they might not be developed at all.

The UK, despite perceptions that it lags behind in space, is one of the biggest contributors to planetary exploration in Europe. ’We build discovery machines,’ said David Parker, science director at the British National Space Centre. ’We operate them, and we generate new knowledge about the solar system and the universe beyond.’

The focus for the space science community in the UK – and, indeed, around the world – is the series of missions to Mars in the upcoming decades. The ESA programme covering these missions is called Aurora, with two major milestones in the next few years.

The first of these comes in 2016, when a US Atlas rocket will launch the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. This will build on the work of previous missions, including ESA’s Mars Express, which discovered tenuous amounts of methane in Mars’s thin atmosphere. The Orbiter will attempt to resolve the components of the Martian atmosphere and gather evidence of how it developed.

It will also carry a small demonstration lander, ESA’s first attempt to soft-land a probe on another planet. Weighing about 500kg, this will decelerate through the upper atmosphere, deploy parachutes to slow it down further, and finally brake using rocket engines to land on the surface. While not designed to do any science on Mars itself, the lander will be instrumented to monitor conditions throughout its descent. ’We need to have this technology for future missions,’ Parker said.

“Space is exciting. It brings young people into these projects, then they move on, into commerical roles or academia. We’re training the future leaders of the space community.”

Sue Horne, BNSC science exploitation project manager

Once the Orbiter has completed its two-year mission, it will take on another role – as the communications platform for the subsequent ExoMars Rover mission. Launching in mid-2018 and landing the following year, this is a joint mission between ESA and NASA.

The US agency’s SkyCrane system, which is being developed for a rover mission next year, will lower the two rovers to the surface. A clear descendant of the Apollo Lunar Lander, SkyCrane uses a square landing platform with four retro-rockets to slow it to a hover above the surface, then lowering its payload gently via a cable before zooming off to a crash-landing a safe distance away. ’For the first time we’ll have two robots on Mars and they’ll collaborate,’ Parker said. ’Roboticists are fascinated by the possibility of the interaction between the two.’

The UK is the second-largest financial contributor to the ExoMars Rover, which is being built in the UK. Over the next 15 years, we will pay €165m (£148m) in subscriptions to ESA, as well as £65m in the UK for technology development, the scientific equipment for ExoMars itself, and for science exploitation. This includes a budget for training. Sue Horne, BNSC science exploitation programme manager, said: ’We estimate that there will be about 200 highly skilled jobs on ExoMars, and they’ll all go on to other projects. Space is exciting. It brings bright young people into these projects, and then they move on. Some go into more commercial roles, and in academia, we’re training the future leaders of the space community.’

The ExoMars rover, which will be built by EADS Astrium in the UK, is the first Mars probe able to explore below the surface. Its 2m-long drill, being built in Italy, will retrieve samples that will be analysed for signs of past or present life.

Everyone involved with Aurora insists that science is the sole driver for technology development for ExoMars. ’We know what science we want to do and that’s what dictates the instruments we build; we don’t deliberately go for things where there is a commercial spin-off, and neglect areas where there isn’t any obvious commercial possibility,’ said Prof Mark Sims of Leicester University, who is leading the development of the LifeMarker chip, an instrument that will look for particular molecules associated with life. ’But you always know that with this sort of planetary science, there will be commercial spin-offs. You just can’t always predict what they’re going to be.’

“You always know that with this sort of planetary science, there will be commercial spin-offs. You just can’t always predict what they’re going to be.”

Mark Sims, LifeMarker Chip project leader, Leicester University

LifeMarker is a case in point. The ExoMars rover will be the first probe to explore Mars in three dimensions: it will carry ground-penetrating radar, similar to the systems used by archaeologists to locate buried remains, to pinpoint the location of unusual deposits below the surface, and will use a drill, which is being developed in Italy, to collect samples from 2m down. Promising samples will be fed into the LifeMarker chip – a miniaturised, automated wet-chemistry laboratory, which will use manmade antibodies to detect organic molecules, and determine whether they had been brought there by meteorites, if they are indicative of past life, or – most exciting of all – whether there is active life below the surface.

’I had the idea back in 1997 that we could use biology to look for biology,’ said Sims. ’We’re using molecular receptors to look for the organic compounds, and we’ve attached those to fluorescent molecules to make them glow. If the glow diminishes, that means that a molecule has attached to our receptor.’

The miniaturisation was only possible up to a point, so there was only room for four analysis modules on the rover. To select the best samples, other instruments will check for minerals associated with water and carbon, and pigments in the rock associated with life.

To prepare samples for the LifeMarker assay, organic molecules have to be extracted from the crushed minerals collected by the drill. ’We worked with Mark Sephton from Imperial College and he’s come up with an exotic solvent mix that will extract molecules that dissolve in water and those that don’t in one go,’ Sims added. ’It’s very efficient, because the concentrations of the organic molecules in the samples are very low and the assay is sensitive enough to detect nanogrammes of material in our one-gramme samples.’

Based on surfactant molecules, this solvent has huge potential spin-offs in industry. ’In one application, it can be used to clean equipment where you can’t have large volumes of organic solvents around,’ Sims said. ’In another, it could be used to extract hydrocarbons cleanly from poor economic sources, such as oil shale.’ The clean exploitation of oil-shale deposits is of huge interest to oil companies, making this a major potential market. ’This wasn’t a spin-off you could have predicted from just looking at the science requirements,’ he added.

The analysis techniques that will select the samples for the LifeMarker are also being used for another of Sims’s research projects: a hospital bed that uses non-invasive techniques to diagnose disease. This also uses technology developed for ExoMars. ’It’s like Dr McCoy’s sickbed on Star Trek,’ according to Sims. ’It’ll use techniques such as mass spectroscopy to do breath and sweat analysis, and hyper-spectral imaging to look at changes in skin colour and tone.’ Sims is working with Prof Tim Coats of the Leicester Royal Infirmary on this project, which is in its early stages.

“The prospect of going to Mars sucks in technology. It boosts it and accelerates it over a short period of time, and having done that, you send it out into the real world.”

David Parker, BNSC Science Director

’I do science because it’s fun for me, and looking for life on Mars is fun,’ Sims said. ’I get just as much fun looking for ways to apply the science to the real world; it’s not a disincentive. But the thing is, you can’t tell a scientist: “OK, go and be inventive today; make me something that’ll make us some money.” It doesn’t work like that. It can’t.’

On the commercial side, spin-offs are a matter of necessity. ’We’re a small company and the projects we work on are high risk,’ said Andrew Bowyer of Magna Parva, which is working on the sample preparation for ExoMars’s analysis instruments (see our article on Magna Parva’s ultrasound technology, developed as a possible component for the rover’s drill, here). ’Part of that is to look for secondary IP and commercialisation. We have to generate income from the secondary IP so we can balance out the fun stuff and Aurora is no doubt the fun stuff.’

Planetary exploration has two important factors: it has hard deadlines, because missions must be flown on schedule; and it has extremely demanding requirements. And that’s good for technology, according to Parker. ’Space has extreme requirements: low power consumption, very high and low extremes of temperature, and radiation levels; plus you can’t go and fix it if it breaks down. The prospect of going to Mars sucks in technology. It boosts it and accelerates it over a short period of time, and having done that, you send it out into the real world.’

The gravitational field of the Red Planet attracts both people and technologies. It isn’t a distraction from practical earthbound concerns and it isn’t launching pound notes into space. It is directed investment: an essential component of frontline engineering.

A navigation system developed for the ExoMars rover has found commercial application in busy airports

The ExoMars Rover, which is being built by EADS Astrium in the UK, has semi-autonomous navigation. Project leader Mark Roe said: ’The rover has to assess whether rocks can be driven over or avoided. Then it has to go around them and return to its path.’ In developing this system, autonomous software company SciSys has found a way to ease navigation around airports.

Roger Ward of SciSys said: ’We came up with an idea to create an autonomous, robotic scientist, which does the science work as it moves across the surface. This culminated in a platform that goes from point A to point B, passing various rocks on the way, most of which would be of no interest, but some of them could be.’

Working with Leicester University on a system that could interpret the rover’s stereoscopic camera imagery to detect interesting rocks, Ward’s team developed a navigation programme that could make decisions about which areas to study as it moved. ’That maximises the science return, but it also gives us a valuable new tool for exploitation,’ he said.

The commercial spin-off is an intelligent robotic porter – a buggy that can ferry air passengers from car park to departure gate autonomously. ’The buggy has cameras and a lidar,’ Ward said. ’We’ve developed an iPhone application for the user to summon the buggy to a certain point. The command goes to an unmanned operations centre, which builds a plan and sends it to the buggy, which can then navigate around obstacles on the route, collect and drop off the passenger, and return.’

The future challenges of Mars exploration will require a collaborative approach

ExoMars is part of a collaboration between ESA and NASA, which has taken shape over the past year. ’The UK has played a role in brokering some of the discussions that have led to this,’ according to David Parker of the British National Space Centre. The collaborations are vital, because ExoMars itself would be impossible for Europe or the US on their own. And the next phase of Mars exploration will be even more demanding.

’The next stage after ExoMars could involve a network of small landers around Mars, which will help us find out about the interior of the planet – something we know nothing about,’ Parker said. ’After that, we get to the decade of sample return.’

The Mars Sample Return project is hugely challenging. ’We have to bring Mars back to Earth to study it properly,’ explained Parker. ’There are some instruments we just can’t take to Mars. Having samples here means we can go back to them over decades, with new techniques and instruments we haven’t developed yet.’

Sample return presents many challenges. ’We need rovers, landers, spacecraft that can take off from the surface and get into orbit, an orbital “pass the parcel” to get them into an orbiter that can return to Earth. ExoMars will help to put some of this technology in place.’