15 May 2012

Money for Mars

Morten Bo Madsen, head of the Mars research group in Astrophysics and Planetary Research at the Niels Bohr Institute, has received a grant of nearly 2.2 million kroner from the The Danish Council for Independent Research, Natural Sciences (FNU). The grant will be used to participate in NASA’s new Mars mission, MSL.

Money for Mars

Morten Bo Madsen

“It is very, very gratifying that Danish research will again have the opportunity to participate in a large, international project that aims to explore our neighbour planet, Mars. It is the most ambitious mission since the Viking missions in 1976 and it is very important to be part of the mission because it allows you to participate in the experiments on the surface of Mars and gives you direct access to all of the results", says Morten Bo Madsen.

The MSL-mission stands for Mars Science Laboratory. The rocket was launched on November 26th 2011 and the rover, Curiosity, will land on Mars on August 5th this year, US time (equivalent to 8 in the morning on August 5th Danish time). The Rover will land in a large crater, Gale, on the border between the northern and southern hemispheres and here the plan to spend two years studying rocks, conducting experiments and collecting samples that will be analysed in the Rover’s many miniature laboratories. The aim of the project is to investigate one of the oldest regions on Mars for ‘habitability’ for life in the form of microorganisms.

Water and habitability

The Danish Mars group has previously had its own instruments on board the Mars lander missions to study the planet’s dust and explore the history of Martian surface and thus the potential for water and possibly even life. The results of previous studies have shown that the dust and soil on Mars is magnetic because it contains ferrous materials. One component in the dust may possibly contain aqueous minerals and it is this component that also appears to be responsible for the planet’s dominant colour, which is the focus of the Danish experiments this time. This time, the Danish researchers are working exclusively with the instruments on board. They will, among other things, try to determine exactly why Mars has the colour it has.


The rover, Curiosity, that's going to land on Mars in August, has the
size of the car, Mini Cooper. It weighs almost 900 kg and has 75 kg
instruments on board to investigation of soil sediments and organic
compounds, a nessesary condition for life.

It’s been a long time since there has been water in large quantities on Mars, but Curiosity will have access to sediments deposited at a time when there was liquid water on the surface and perhaps in the sediments they will find organic compounds which are one of the necessary prerequisites for life. 

The grant from FNU means that Morten Bo Madsen can now travel to Pasadena, California in the beginning of August and be part of the research team at NASA’s control centre for three months. In addition, he can hire Kjartan Kinch, PhD in physics and an expert in camera calibration, for 1½ year and PhD student Jens Frydenvang, an expert in analysing LIBS-spectra, for almost ½ year; both are key elements in the planned Danish studies.

NASA - Mars Science Laboratory >>
NASA - Jet Propulsion Laboratory >>

Watch films about the previous Mars mission, Phoenix:
MARS - Phoenix Mission, part 1 >>
MARS - Phoenix Mission, part 2 >>
MARS - Phoenix Mission, part 3 >>