Engineers help NASA discover if Mars once supported life

European engineers are helping NASA prepare for the first of two missions to discover whether Mars could have once supported life.

The largest and most advanced rover ever built by the US, Curiosity, is due to be sent to Mars sometime in the next month carrying technology developed in Finland and Spain as part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.

Curiosity will include instruments for measuring pressure and humidity provided by the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI), part of a package of devices for environmental monitoring supplied by Spanish research institute INTA-CAB.

A second mission — the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission — is scheduled to launch in late 2013 to orbit Mars, collecting information to help determine what caused the Martian atmosphere to be lost to space.

‘The ultimate driver for these missions is the question, did Mars ever have life?’ said Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

‘Did microbial life ever originate on Mars and what happened to it as the planet changed? Did it just go extinct or did it go underground, where it would be protected from space radiation and where temperatures might be warm enough for liquid water?’

Curiosity is due to land in the 154km-wide Gale crater near the planet’s equator in August 2012, after which it will examine the geological record of environmental changes contained in its sedimentary rock, as well as current atmospheric conditions and variation.

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) instruments from the FMI will enable researchers to compile time series on pressure and humidity for the duration of the entire MSL programme (one Mars year).

Local variation will be collected by moving the rover around during the research programme and looking for areas showing variation in the water content of the ground and the humidity of the atmosphere.

The MSL will also look for residues and evidence of water that may have filled Gale crater in the past. The MSL will not try to find life on Mars, but it may well show whether Mars has sometimes had conditions favourable to life.

‘Curiosity will focus on geology and minerals to determine if the environment on Mars in the distant past had the potential to support life,’ said Mahaffy.

‘It will be digging in the dirt trying to understand the habitability issue in a place where water may have flowed, where there could have been a lake.’

The MAVEN mission, expected to reach Mars in 2014, will study the ratio of hydrogen to its isotope deuterium in the atmosphere and compare it to data from mineral records to determine how much hydrogen (and, therefore, water) has been lost over Mars’ lifetime.