Friday, April 18, 2014

Mars 'Icebreaker' mission - details released - Video

The Icebreaker drill in the laboratory at Honeybee Robotics

Credit: Honeybee Robotics

Scientists supported by the Astrobiology Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) and Astrobiology Instrument Development Programs (ASTID) have outlined the proposed 'Icebreaker' mission to Mars in a recent paper in the Journal of Field Robotics.

Icebreaker would send a robotic lander to the same region of Mars visited by the Phoenix mission in 2007.

After landing at Mars' polar latitudes, Icebreaker would use its tools to penetrate the surface and excavate samples.

The goal is to see what is hiding beneath the ice caps, and whether or not Icebreaker could unlock a treasure trove of organics, and possibly signs of past or present life on Mars.

Getting Down on Mars
The surface of Mars is not only inhospitable to life as we know it, it's also a rough place for molecules themselves to survive.

Mars has a very thin atmosphere compared to Earth, and this means there is little to stand in the way of the harsh solar and space radiation that pummels the surface. This radiation can quickly cause molecules to decay.

However, ice on Mars could help shield molecules from radiation, and the deeper the molecules are buried beneath the ice, the longer they survive.

Because of this, the best places to search for organics and biosignatures on Mars could be at the poles or other areas where ice is present.

"Our goal is not the polar caps per se," said Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center and co-author on the study."Our goal is ice-cemented ground."

According to McKay, another location that the researches are considering is near the Viking 2 landing site, where a separate study by Bryne et al. (2009) revealed that the ground is cemented together by ice near the surface.

"The ice-cemented ground is of interest for two reasons," said McKay.

"Firstly, it's possible that during periods of recent high obliquity the ice was warmed and became as habitable as the soils in the Antarctic dry valleys. Second is the hypothesis that ice cement protects organics and biomarkers."

The difficultly of such a mission is in getting under the ice to collect samples. The Icebreaker team believes that drilling is the most realistic method to use for this purpose.

University Valley, Antarctica (approximate coordinates: -77.866427, 160.725585). 

Credit: Honeybee Robotics

More information: Glass, B. J., Dave, A., McKay, C. P. and Paulsen, G. (2014), "Robotics and Automation for 'Icebreaker'." J. Field Robotics, 31: 192–205. DOI: 10.1002/rob.21487

Read the full article here

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