18 February 2021

Are we alone? UCPH researchers hold their breath ahead of Mars landing

space research

Traces of prehistoric life will be the ultimate goal as the NASA rover Perseverance lands on Mars tonight. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen have contributed several important elements to the mission.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

If all goes as planned, NASA's space vehicle Perseverance will touchdown on Mars Thursday night in the agency’s most ambitious mission to date. The mission's primary task is to look for traces of life and in doing so, address one of the most fundamental questions in human history: Are we alone?

"The ultimate goal is to find traces of microscopic life that may have been present on Mars early in the planet's history. If there was ever life on Mars, there's a good chance that the samples from this mission will let us know. This is an extraordinarily exciting time," says Morten Bo Madsen, a physicist and associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute.

Together with other researchers and technicians from the University of Copenhagen, Morten Bo Madsen has contributed to several of the rover’s instruments which make this mission possible.

An important part of the rover's eyes

The rover will collect a series of samples from Mars' surface. These samples will be brought back to Earth during a follow-up mission. Upon their return, detailed analyses of these samples will reveal traces of past life, as well as bring a wealth of other knowledge about Mars, and planetary evolution more generally.

To assist with reconnaissance and selecting where the samples will be gathered and to document the sampling, the rover will use, among other things, a stereo imagery camera called the Mastcam-Z, as well as the SuperCam, a laser-based instrument that can determine the elemental composition of sand, rocks and cliffs.

The Mastcam-Z camera and SuperCam both require unique calibration devices that allow for the adjustment of color balance, so that the color characteristics of the surface can be separated from the lighting (in both infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light).

"The atmospheric conditions on Mars are constantly changing. For example, there could be a lot of red dust in the air, a factor that the rover’s cameras need to take into account when taking pictures. This is why we’ve developed color references that the cameras that allow them to be adjusted, in order for images to be used for comparison and analysis," explains physicist and associate professor Kjartan Kinch of the Niels Bohr Institute.

Will drive around Mars

University of Copenhagen researchers will be directly involved in the operational work of steering the rover around Mars in its quest for traces of life. On the Danish end of things, physicist Jens Frydenvang of the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute is leading the work.

"We play a significant role in the mission and will help to determine and plan which areas will be scouted by the rover and analyse the data that we continuously receive," explains Frydenvang, who has hundreds of hours of space mission experience behind him.

The specimens collected by Perseverance are expected to be back on Earth for further study in the early 2030s—an effort that the university's researchers also hope to contribute to.

"The samples gathered from this mission, and the opportunity to have them examined by the best labs in the world, is probably our first opportunity to definitively answer the question of whether we are alone in the universe," says Jens Frydenvang.

Perseverance is expected to land on Mars Thursday night, February 18, just before 10 p.m.

The University of Copenhagen’s contribution

  • Mastcam-Z: 'Z' stands for zoom, as they are the first cameras fitted with a zoom function to make it to Mars. Mastcam-Z is the rover's primary scientific camera and can be understood as the rover's "scientific" eyes, as the instrument is made up of two cameras attached to the rover's mast. They are able to provide stereo imagery in precisely the same way as our eyes can. The cameras are equipped with a variety of color filters. These allow images to be captured in many different wavelengths of light, from the near-infrared, to visible and to near-ultraviolet wavelengths. UCPH’s Niels Bohr Institute has supplied color references (calibration targets) to the camera. And, Kjartan Kinch and Morten Bo Madsen are part of the team behind the quality assurance and imagery analysis for the Mastcam-Z.

  • SuperCam: A laser instrument that can shoot at cliffs several meters from the rover and measure both elemental composition and mineralogy. The University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute has supplied components for the calibration target of the instrument's infrared spectrometer and color camera. Physicist Jens Frydenvang is part of the team responsible for translating and analysing data on the element composition of the planet.

  • MOXIE: An experiment to support future manned Mars missions. The aim is to demonstrate that it is possible to produce oxygen directly from Mars' CO2 atmosphere. The amount of oxygen that can be produced with MOXIE is very small, but the experiment should provide essential knowledge for how a future production facility could be designed to support a manned mission. It's one thing for astronauts to use oxygen to breathe, of course, but the big gain is being able to produce oxygen for combustion in the rocket that will have to transport astronauts up from Mars on home to Earth. The Niels Bohr Institute and DTU energy have contributed technical and scientific expertise to MOXIE. Morten Bo Madsen will participate in these MOXIE experiments.

  • The rover's operational work: Physicist Jens Frydenvang of the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute is leading the operational work on the rover. This includes steering the rover tothe locations where it wants to collect samples from and to continuously plan new daily surveys of Mars. The work will involve more researchers and students at UCPH in the years ahead.