New tools to help search habitable environments on Mars

PTI | Updated on: Thursday, May 30, 2019, 12:27 PM IST


Washington: NASA scientists have developed a set of five instruments that can take surface measurements on Mars to help understand weather conditions on the red planet as well as search for potentially habitable environments. When human explorers embark on the journey to Mars, they need to know the natural conditions of the red planet before they arrive.

One of the future rover missions may host the Martian Aqueous Habitat Reconnaissance Suite (MAHRS), a set of instruments specifically focused on searching for wet brine environments in the shallow subsurface of Mars. “Brine environments are where you would look for life. Any water that exists today on Mars would likely be in the form of a brine if is in a liquid state,” said Project Manager Dan Vento.

Developed at NASA Glenn Research Centre in partnership with the University of Michigan, MAHRS research hardware includes an optical microscope to study the size and characteristics of settling dust on Mars. The 4×4 inch cube is outfitted with a sensor, a circuit board and a microscope lens turned upward.


When Martian dust settles on the top of the settling glass, the lens can take high-resolution images for scientific evaluation. “The interesting feature about the microscope, is that the electronics architecture can support a camera lens or hyperspectral sensor depending on the scientific goals of the mission,” said Norman Prokop, NASA Glenn engineer.

Mounted to the microscope, a radiometer measures the amount of solar energy absorbed at the surface to study the amount of dust in the Martian atmosphere. Less energy making it to the surface means more dust in the atmosphere is absorbing the solar energy.

A saltation probe, which would hang vertically off the bottom of a rover, measures the impact of soil and dust swirling on the Martian surface. Since it is close to the ground, it can measure the impact, mass and velocity of soil as it hits the probe, giving researchers an indication of wind energy and soil movement.


Scientists have also developed a soil wetness sensor, which measures water content on the surface and detects the formation of liquid brines. They testing an electric field sensor to measure electrical charges in the atmosphere caused by airborne dust.

As it sits and spins on a rover arm, it will measure weather patterns and indicate the level of erosion on Mars. This integrated suite of instruments can potentially advance our understanding of wind and weather conditions on the surface of Mars and the implications for habitability, NASA said.

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Published on: Monday, September 26, 2016, 04:45 PM IST