Mars - there and back – Niels Bohr Institute - University of Copenhagen

Niels Bohr Institute > News > News 2008 > Mars - there and back

27 June 2008

Mars - there and back

With PhD. researcher Line Drube at the Phoenix Mars mission in Tucson, Arizona:

It is busy at the Phoenix Mars mission. Since the landing at 1:38 AM Danish time on the 26th of May, over a hundred scientists from six nations have conducted numerous experiments with the rover that landed on Mars’ northern polar region, where the goal is to investigate the possibilities for life in the permafrost subsurface as well as the climate on the cold planet.

The work takes place in Tucson in the American state Arizona, where the control center for the mission is located, and the work continues around the clock. “I have had three days off in one month. Everything is so exciting and it is difficult to stay away – you just want to be there and follow along”, explains Line Drube, who is one of the six Danish researchers from the Mars Group at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. She is just home in Copenhagen for a short while for her brother’s wedding, but otherwise it is the work with Mars that fills the time for the three hectic months that the mission is expected to last.

Through the three months the lander, with the help of its robotic arm, will dig a trench in the permafrost in the arctic plain around Mars’ north pole in order to search for water and signs in the subsurface of climate changes. It has already been confirmed that there is ice in the subsurface just under the surface and the first shovelfuls of soil have been put in a little oven that will analyse the soil for salts, organic matter and other characteristic elements. Another instrument will measure pH, electric conductivity and ions from selected salts.

Investigating the Mars dust
The Danish equipment from the Niels Bohr Institute consists of three instruments, radiometric calibration targets, called CalTargets, which will investigate the minerals on Mars’ surface and the University of Aarhus has developed a wind sensor, which is a part of the rover’s weather station.

Line Drube works with the CalTarget instruments, which have a double function. They consist of round discs with colored circles on the surface and strong, ring-shaped magnets underneath. The colored circles are radiometric calibration plates, which are used to adjust the mission’s camera, both to insure the most realistic colors in the pictures and to use the camera’s spectral filter for investigations of minerals in the Mars dust. The rust red soil and dust on Mars contains iron oxides and the magnets capture the magnetised dust particles, which are blown around by the wind.

“We have taken a lot of pictures of the dust particles through different filters and for each picture we get a point in the spectrum of the minerals. By looking at the color changes at different places on the surface of our CalTargets, we can find out what type of minerals the dust is made of. We have just begun to analyse our data and that is what I will be working with now”, explains Line Drube, who works with the Mars research as her PhD. project.

Working on Mars time
The instruments on the lander get power to perform the scientific experiments from large solar panels, so the experiments must be carried out during the day and when there is full sun at the landing site on Mars. But as a Mars day is approximately 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, the researchers workday constantly shifts.

“ We go around carrying two watches, one that shows what time it is in Tucson and one the shows Mars time. As the Science Team we start to work when it is late afternoon at the landing site and you receive data from the days experiments. At the beginning of the mission we met late in the afternoon local Tucson time and worked late into the night, but every day this shifts 40 minutes so we eventually worked at night and had to sleep during the day. At this point in time, we start at 5:00 in the morning and it is nice to have daylight when you get off of work and for it to be dark when you sleep”, explains Line Drube who really likes her work.

She has always wanted to understand the universe and after a bachelor degree in astronomy she chose planetary physics for her further studies. “I think that it is so exciting to be a part of investigating planets. It is a dream to be part of a mission like this one and to actually dig on Mars”, says Line Drube, who also has another dream regarding the universe – to go out there herself. Line Drube is one of the Danish applicants to be an astronaut.