Imperial seeks life on Mars

A team from Imperial College London’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering is developing technology to analyse the Martian soil


A team from Imperial College London’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering is developing technology that will be carried on the Mars Phoenix mission to analyse the Martian soil.


The team, led by Dr Tom Pike, has developed substrates that will hold soil samples for microscope imaging aboard the Phoenix lander as part of the mission to seek conditions favourable for past or present life. The micro-machine technology will be the first UK hardware to contribute to the exploration of Mars since the failed Beagle 2 spacecraft launched in 2003.

An optical microscope and an atomic force microscope will image the grains of Martian dust and soil, delivered by a mechanical excavating arm. Together they will provide the highest resolution of imaging ever taken on another planet.

The team has been conducting trials on a replica of Phoenix’s microscope station based at Imperial. They have been using the equipment for several months to work out the best way of studying the Martian soil.

The launch date is scheduled for a three-week period after 3 August 2007. During the analysis phase Dr Pike and his team will be based at Mission Control. They will be part of the team operating the microscope station.

The construction of the microscope station is an international effort with the UK’s contribution supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.