As the search for extraterrestrial life continues, ExoMars 2020 represents the next chapter in astrobiological exploration. A joint project organized by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, ExoMars 2020 is scheduled to launch in July 2020, depositing a rover and landing surface platform along Mars’ equator in order to search for the evidence of ancient life on the planet.
While NASA’s Curiosity rover has been collecting data from Mars since 2011, the ExoMars 2020 mission is built to dig even deeper below Mars’ surface (to depths of 1.5 meters), equipped with a series of innovative technologies like the ADRON-EM and ADRON-RM detectors featuring Helium-3 Neutron Proportional Counters developed by LND, Inc. these instruments (located on the project’s landing platform and rover, respectively) are neutron spectrometers designed to detect hydrogen in the form of bound water or ice—a quintessential step in determining the water distribution of the Martian subsurface, and the viability of life (both past and future) on Mars.
“We are happy to be part of yet another mission to Mars,” says Spencer B. Neyland, Vice President of Operations at LND, Inc. “Since the 1960s, LND has designed and built a wide range of detectors for many successful aerospace missions. We engineer our detectors to survive the rocket launch and perform in the harsh environment of space, which helps explain our continuing collaboration with research groups in aerospace mission development.”
ExoMars 2020 is the second phase of the ExoMars program (the first, launched in 2016, deployed the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter into Mars orbit to map the planet’s atmosphere). It takes on added importance after NASA’s Curiosity rover discovered evidence of ancient organic molecules on the planet in June of 2018, and promises to be the most impressive science payload to ever touch down on Mars.
As integral pieces of that payload, ADRON-EM and ADRON-RM neutron spectrometers each utilize a pair of LND Proportional Counters measuring 25 millimeters in diameter and 55 millimeters in total length (with an active length of 25 millimeters) that are filled with Helium-3 gas at 4 atmospheres of pressure. These counters help measure the neutron fluxes of the planet’s surface and subsurface (at depths between 0.6 meters and 1.5 meters) to determine the presence of neutron-absorbing elements like hydrogen—an element usually distributed within a planetary subsurface as water or ice.
Data collected from the ADRON-EM and ADRON-RM will build upon measurements already recorded by the first active neutron experiment conducted on Mars, the dynamic albedo of neutrons experiment (DAN) operating onboard the Curiosity rover. By combining the two data sets, scientists working with the ExoMars project expect to further enhance global Mars water distribution maps.
Additionally, the surface platform is designed to operate for one Martian year (687 Earth days), allowing the potential to monitor seasonal changes of the neutron environment and establish a clearer picture of the climate and atmosphere on Mars.
ExoMars 2020 offers an exceptional opportunity to understand the Mars’ geophysical composition as well as the planet’s long-term climate. In addition, the mission’s ADRON-EM and ADRON-RM integrated with LND’s Helium-3 counters could provide the water data necessary to pave the way for human exploration of the planet and the next steps towards human civilization of Mars.