in Space

Mission to explore life on Mars moves a step closer

Posted 23 November 2023

A European mission to explore life on Mars has been given a major boost after a UK firm was awarded more than £10 million to replace Russian components in the Rosalind Franklin Mars Rover, Space Minister Andrew Griffith announced today.

Image courtesy UK Space Agency

The rover, which was built by Airbus in Stevenage as part of a European Space Agency programme, was due to launch in 2022 before collaboration with Russia’s space agency was cancelled following the illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Now, the UK Space Agency will provide an additional £10.7 million to a UK team to replace a Russian-made instrument on the Rosalind Franklin rover, with the aim of launching to Mars in 2028. It brings the total government investment in the Rosalind Franklin, through the UK Space Agency, to £377 million.

The rover is expected to travel several kilometres across the planet in search of a site with high potential of evidence of life on Mars. It will collect samples by drilling to a depth of around two metres below its surface, before using next-generation instruments to analyse findings in an onboard laboratory.

The new funding will allow a UK team, led by the University of Aberystwyth, to build the new instrument, named Enfys – meaning ‘rainbow’ in Welsh. It will identify targets on the surface of Mars for sampling and analysis, which could in turn reveal evidence of life on the Red Planet.

Enfys will work with University College London’s (UCL) Mullard Space team’s panoramic camera to identify minerals – enabling the rover to drill for samples to be analysed by other instruments on board.

The announcement comes on the final day of the UK Space Conference in Belfast, which has brought experts and innovators from across the world in government, industry and academia together to shape the future of space.

Science, Research and Innovation Minister, Andrew Griffith, said: "Is there life on Mars? That has been asked by mankind for generations and this UK investment is an exciting opportunity to enhance our understanding of the Red Planet and perhaps finally answer that very question.

"It is also just the surface of our support for the UK’s growing space sector with further funds unlocked for earth observation firms to gather key climate data and low earth orbit satellites to better connect rural areas and level up the UK."

Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, Dr Paul Bate, said: "The UK-built Rosalind Franklin rover is a truly world-leading piece of technology at the frontier of space exploration. It is fantastic that experts from the UK can also provide a key instrument for this mission, using UK Space Agency funding.

"As well as boosting world-class UK space technology to further our understanding of Mars and its potential to host life, this extra funding will strengthen collaboration across the fast-growing UK space sector and economy.”

It follows yesterday’s announcement by the Chancellor, in his Autumn Statement, of almost £47 million in funding this financial year to boost activity and innovation in the Earth observation sector as the UK re-enters Copernicus from January 2024.

The fund will support businesses that use Earth observation data including small and medium enterprises, to explore new projects and bolster the economy, with around 18% of UK GDP underpinned by satellite services.

The Chancellor confirmed £15 million of calls are now open under the £60 million European Space Agency Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems programme, allocated to the UK’s Connectivity in Low Earth Orbit scheme. This will fund the next generation of satellite communications development and boost the UK’s leadership in the ever-growing satellite market for the next 10-15 years.

It will support UK-based suppliers in developing the technologies needed to build the next generation of low Earth orbit satcom satellites, which are key to offering connectivity in remote and rural parts of UK, bridging the digital divide and levelling-up our country while growing the economy.

Principal Investigator on Enfys at Aberystwyth University, Dr Matt Gunn, said: "This is a challenging and complex technical endeavour which has the potential to make a significant contribution to our search for signs of life on Mars. The instrument team, both here in Aberystwyth and in the partnering institutions are all very much looking forward to receiving measurements from the planet’s surface to expand our knowledge of the Mars environment.

"We learned a lot during the development and testing of PanCam and it is a privilege to be leading the fantastic team of people who will put that knowledge into practice once again to develop a new instrument for the mission."

The latest UK Space Agency investment in the Mars Rover builds on existing work by UK institutions involved with the project, including the University of Leicester, Bradford University and the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory as key players in the development of the CCD camera on the Raman Laser Spectrometer (Raman LIBS).

This can detect the presence of chemical compounds including minerals and specific types of ‘biomarkers’ – chemicals indicative of past or present life – that are produced by primitive micro-organisms to enable them to adapt to life in extreme environments.




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