ABB technology to search for signs of life on Mars

2011-03-10 - An ABB interferometer is a central component of an instrument that will orbit Mars and probe the planet's atmosphere in search of indicators of the past or present existence of life.

By ABB Communications

The interferometer is the central component of a satellite-borne instrument called MATMOS that will search the Martian atmosphere for methane and other trace gases that will help answer the question: Is there life on Mars?

MATMOS (Mars atmospheric trace molecule occulatation spectrometer) is part of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a satellite which is to be launched in 2016 in the first mission of a joint space program of the European and United States space agencies (ESA and NASA) to investigate the Martian environment and search for signs of life.

The first mission, which is to be launched in 2016, comprises the orbiter and an entry, descent and landing demonstrator that will analyze the environment at the landing site as well as its own performance during the descent. The second mission, in 2018, will consist of two rovers (roaming vehicles) that will land at the same site, collect samples from target destinations, and analyze the mineralogy. Once processed, the data will be transmitted back to earth via an orbiter relay satellite.

The ABB interferometer allows phenomenal sensitivity. MATMOS will allow measurement of the concentration of different chemicals and gases with a precision down to a few parts per trillion.

One of the most promising indicators of the past or present existence of life is methane, which can be produced either biogenically by dead or living organisms, or geologically by volcanoes or the oxidization of iron. The task of the ABB spatial interferometer is to produce a sensitive survey of the Mars atmosphere: detect, and measure the abundance of methane and other gases as the satellite passes through the Martian atmosphere on its orbit.

The ABB interferometer enables phenomenal sensitivity: MATMOS will provide measurements of the concentration of different chemicals and gases with a precision down to a few parts per trillion.

ABB's interferometer was the natural choice for this type of mission. Its design is based largely on another ABB instrument, ACE-FTS, that is currently currently achieving some remarkable results as the principal payload onboard the Canadian satellite SCISAT-1.

ACE-FTS is measuring the chemical constituents of the earth's atmosphere and collecting data on the depletion of the ozone layer over Canada and the Arctic. To date it has provided data for more than 200 scientific papers, measured 12 chemicals that have never previously been detected by satellite, and has been operating faultlessly since 2003, several years longer than originally expected.

MATMOS is a collaboration between NASA, the California Institute of Technology/JPL, and the Canadian Space Agency. ABB was selected by the Canadian Space Agency and is the prime contractor for the CSA's contribution to the project.

The two missions of the ESA-NASA ExoMars program for 2016 and 2018
Copyright: European Space Agency

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    ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
    The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. Copyright: European Space Agency

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