British sensors and other core technologies are critical parts of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission, which currently has a craft in orbit around Mars, with a rover due to land on the planet in two years’ time.
The mission may help establish whether there has been life there in the past, or if it still exists in microbial form.
Supported by the UK Space Agency, ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft has been following a Martian dust storm from 400km above the surface over the past year.
The TGO is studying atmospheric trace gases and their sources to help scientists understand the source of the methane in the red planet’s atmosphere and whether it is from a geological or biological source.
Sensors have also been monitoring how the increase in dust is affecting water vapour in the atmosphere. This is important for understanding the history of water on Mars, according to an announcement this week.
The UK space industry provided the spacecraft’s batteries, ultra-high frequency (UHF) transceiver, and aerodynamic analysis.
Over the past 13 years, the UK Space Agency has invested nearly £250 million in the ExoMars mission and £12 million in the instruments, making it the second largest European contributor after Italy.
A further £370,000 has been poured into the TGO’s instrument operations and over £2.5 million into data analysis so far. The UK Space Agency is supporting 18 researchers in five British institutions.
Sue Horne, Head of Space Exploration at the UK Space Agency, said, “ExoMars embodies the best of UK and European space science and I’m delighted that Britain is one of the biggest supporters.”
Dr Manish Patel at the Open University led the UK’s design input to the spectrometer system, which looks at atmospheric composition. Dr Patel said, “The measurements we have made are very surprising. The methane previously detected by ground-based telescopes, the ESA Mars Express spacecraft, and the NASA Curiosity rover seems to have disappeared.
“Mars continues to confound us. The only way these results make sense with previous observations is if there is a new mechanism in the atmosphere, removing the methane at a rate far faster than thought possible. As always, Mars provides us with another mystery to solve.”
But Britain’s achievements in space will be crowned by the UK-built Rosalind Franklin rover – named after the British scientist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA – landing on the planet in 2021, in part two of the ExoMars mission.
The rover is currently under construction by Airbus in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.
Airbus CEO Tom Enders has recently warned that Brexit may force the company to move investments out of the UK. The company has been stockpiling parts to maintain aircraft production in the event of Brexit-related customs delays, according to Bloomberg.