UK scientist to pilot the European Space Agency’s Mars rover
Image credit: European Space Agency
A scientist from the University of Stirling in Scotland will be one of the first to pilot the European Space Agency’s Mars rover when it launches next year.
The Rosalind Franklin rover will be on a mission to find life on the Red Planet when it arrives in June 2023.
It is the first to carry a drill long enough to explore molecules up to two metres below the surface, where they would be protected from the harsh radiation on the planet’s surface.
Dr Christian Schröder is one of five Guest Investigators who will join a panel of scientists from of different disciplines from Europe, Russia and Canada.
They will play a leading role in commanding the rover once it lands at the selected site of Oxia Planum on Mars.
The rover will spend a minimum of 211 ‘sols’ (Martian days), equivalent to 230 Earth days, searching for organic carbon molecules that could tell us whether there was ever life on Mars.
Schröder was previously part of the team operating Nasa’s twin Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, from 2003 to 2019.
The mission established the past presence of liquid water on the Martian surface – the most important prerequisite for life.
“Over the last two decades we have learned that there was plenty of liquid water on Mars more than 3.5 billion years ago – at that time, Earth and Mars were very similar and life was already well established on Earth,” Schröder said.
“So it’s conceivable that there was life on Mars, too. But even if we find the right signs, was that life independent of life on Earth? Or was it the result of meteorite exchange between Earth and Mars?
“If it was independent – and life originated twice within our solar system - then the universe could be swarming with life. If not, that would be less likely.”
He added that he is specifically interested in the interaction between iron minerals and carbon molecules, which can give an indication of the kind of life there might have been.
He said: “Radiation destroys the organic molecules on and near the surface so it’s important that, for the first time on a rover, ExoMars 2022 has a drill that can go two metres underground.”
Once the Rosalind Franklin has landed, the rover’s pilots will be based at the Rover Operation Control Centre in Turin, Italy, where the team will guide the rover over the surface of Mars.
It carries nine scientific instruments to locate the best sites for drilling and analyse the retrieved samples.
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