Saturday, 30 November 2013

RSC Belgium explores Mars!

On Tuesday 26 November a packed Swoosh Lounge at the British School of Brussels heard about the exploration of Mars from Dr. Ann Carine Vandaele of the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomie (BISA). The fascinating talk took RSC members and friends through the long history of humanity’s missions to Mars. And then brought us up-to-date with the next planned explorations in which Ann herself is involved.

Ann (below) is Head of Planetary Aeronomie at the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomie based at the Uccle Observatory and is the Principal Investigator for the NOMAD (Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery) spectrometer suite that will identify components of the Martian atmosphere on board the planned 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter Mission.

Ann started her talk by comparing the Earth and Mars and their atmospheres and then outlined the history and objectives of the various missions that have been sent to Mars since the 1960s – including some heroic failures and the many notable successes.

The first flights to Mars were made by Soviet craft but the first real success was the US Mariner 9 flight in 1971. The Viking landers followed in 1975 and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2003. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) first mission was the Mars Express in 2005.

All these missions have given us growing evidence that there was a large amount of water on Mars in the past and, indeed, there is a reasonable supply on the planet still – just not on the surface.

The latest mission is of course the NASA Curiosity rover with its powerful array of chemical instruments in what is essentially a mobile science lab.

The ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) is the next major scientific mission to Mars and will be searching for that elusive ‘biosignature’ of Martian life past or present. The Viking missions sent back data that may or may not have indicated that (bacterial) life is present now on Mars. The ExoMars mission is currently under development by the European and Russian Space Agencies (ESA and Roscosmos) having been originally planned as a NASA-ESA joint venture. The ExoMars programme includes several elements that will probably be sent to Mars on two launches in 2016 and 2018.

NOMAD, the “Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery” European instrument was selected as part of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission for 2016. It will conduct a spectroscopic survey of the atmosphere of Mars in the ultraviolet (UV), visible and infrared (IR) spectral regions. Its primary objective will be to improve our knowledge of the vertical structure and composition of the atmosphere of the ‘red planet’.

All in all this was an extremely interesting talk that kept an audience of well over 40 members and friends enthralled. Plenty of questions were asked and the discussion continued over drinks and light refreshments.

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