New Mars rover plan welcomed by University of Leicester scientists involved in mission

Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Astronomers at the University of Leicester are celebrating news that the Mars Rover they built equipment for has a new launch date, after being suspended due to the war in Ukraine.

A new plan to launch the Rosalind Franklin Rover in 2028 and to build a European lander to take it to the surface of Mars has been approved by member states of the European Space Agency. 

The University of Leicester is involved in two of the instruments that will equip the rover.

The aim of the ExoMars ‘Rosalind Franklin’ Rover is to search for traces of ancient life in the landing site in an area of ancient clay-rich deposits called Oxia Planum. The rover has been built in the UK together with the PanCam eyes of the rover and a key part of the Raman Spectrometer to detect organic traces.

Dr Ian Hutchinson, Dr Melissa McHugh and Dr Hannah Lerman from the School of Physics and Astronomy have developed Raman spectroscopy techniques which will use laser light to identify particular minerals and organic compounds in the search for life.

Dr Melissa McHugh said: “The news of the exploration funding from ESA and new launch date for ExoMars is incredibly exciting for us. We are part of the team that developed one of the analytical instruments on-board: the Raman Laser Spectrometer, a tool that utilises a green laser to characterise material from the surface and subsurface of Mars, in the search for past and present life on Mars. With our collaborators in Oxford, we were responsible for the development and delivery of the camera system for the instrument. 

“We have also been part of the training exercises/simulations with the national and international ExoMars team in order to prepare for surface operations, i.e. operating the instrument and rapidly analysing the data from the instrument when it is first returned from Mars. This training involves testing the instrument in different environmental scenarios to ensure the instrument will achieve its best performance during the mission. 

“The Raman instrument and the Rosalind Franklin Rover itself are unique compared to previous rovers, particularly as it will collect material from up to 2m below the surface, which has never been attempted before. So it’s brilliant news that the mission is able to go ahead!”

Professor John Bridges was part of the project team tasked with selecting the Rover’s landing site, more than 350 million km away from Earth, and has worked on the PanCam high-resolution 3D camera which will serve as the spacecraft’s ‘eyes’ on the Martian surface. In November 2018 over 100 delegates from academia and industry met at the National Space Centre in Leicester to select the landing site for the ExoMars rover.

Professor Bridges said: “The ExoMars rover has had a troubled development but the key science and technology reasons for the rover remain – for the first time we will drill deep below the irradiated ground surface and so gain the best chance of identifying pristine organic material. When the ExoMars team selected Oxia Planum as the landing site at the Leicester conference we wanted a site with some of the oldest clay-rich fine grained sediments on Mars.  We have still only explored a tiny fraction of the martian surface and Oxia Planum give us the opportunity to study a different type of environment where they may once have been primitive life.”

High containment technology is being developed at Space Park Leicester, by the University of Leicester, to support the analysis of the first samples returned from Mars. The Mars Perseverance Rover at Jezero Crater is part of the NASA-ESA ‘Mars Sample Return’ mission to bring samples of Mars material back to Earth for detailed study. ESA’s Double Walled Isolator (DWI) has been proposed as the likely technology to handle the samples in a way that protects both their scientific integrity and that of our terrestrial biosphere, in the unlikely event that the returned samples are hazardous.