March 17, 2022 was a tough day for Jorge Vago. A planetary physicist, his Vago leads science as part of his ExoMars program at the European Space Agency. His team was just months away from launching Europe’s first Mars rover. This is a goal we have been working towards for nearly 20 years. But that day, the ESA suspended ties with the Russian space agency over its invasion of Ukraine. The launch was planned at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is leased to Russia.
“They said the whole thing had to be called off,” says Vago. “We were all grieving.”
For the Rosalind Franklin Rover, originally approved in 2005, this was a painful setback. Budget issues, partner changes, technical issues and his COVID-19 pandemic have caused previous delays. And now war. “I’ve spent most of my career trying to get this going,” he says Vago. To further complicate matters, the mission included a Russian-made lander and equipment that ESA member states needed funding to replace. They considered many options, including simply keeping the unused rover in a museum. But then came a lifeline in November when the European research minister pledged 360 million euros to cover the mission costs, including the replacement of Russian parts.
When the rover finally launches in 2028, it will have a suite of advanced instruments, but one in particular could have a big impact on science. The rover’s next-generation mass spectrometer, designed to analyze carbon-bearing material beneath the surface of Mars, will be the cornerstone of a strategy to finally answer the most important question about Mars: past or present evidence. mosquito? life?
He is a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, planetary analysis In the Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry. Perhaps the most obvious and direct method is simply looking for fossilized microbes.but inanimate chemistry can create Seemingly lifelike structureInstead, mass spectrometers help scientists look for molecular patterns that are unlikely to form without living biology.
Looking for patterns in life, rather than structures or specific molecules, has additional advantages in extraterrestrial environments, Seaton says. “It allows us to look not just for the life we know, but for the life we don’t know.”
packing for mars
At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, DC, planetary scientist William Brinkerhoff unveiled a prototype of the rover’s mass spectrometer, known as the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA). Roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase, the instrument is like a maze of wire and metal. “This really helps,” Brinkerhoff said as his fellow planetary scientist Xiang Li adjusted the screws on the prototype before demoing the sample-holding carousel. I’m here.
This working prototype will be used to analyze organic molecules in Mars-like soils on Earth. And when the real MOMA reaches Mars around 2030, Brinkerhoff and his colleagues will use prototypes and original copies stored in NASA’s Mars-like environment to fine-tune experimental protocols. and troubleshoot any issues that arise. Facilitates interpretation of Mars data during missions.
This modern mass spectrometer can trace its roots nearly 50 years, to the first mission to study Martian soil. For his two Viking landers in 1976, engineers miniaturized room-sized mass spectrometers to fit the footprint of today’s desktop his printers. These instruments were also installed on the 2008 Phoenix lander, the 2012 Curiosity rover, and later Chinese, Indian and US Mars rovers.
Visitors to the Brinkerhof prototype must first pass through a display case containing dismantled copies of Viking instruments on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. “It’s like a national treasure,” Brinkerhoff enthusiastically points out to the component.
Mass spectrometers are essential tools used in analytical chemistry in laboratories and other facilities around the world. TSA agents use them to test luggage explosives at airports. EPA scientists use these to test drinking water for contaminants. Pharmaceutical companies also use them to determine the chemical structure of potential new drugs.
There are many types of mass spectrometers, but each is a “three-part instrument,” explains Devin Swinner, an analytical chemist at pharmaceutical company Merck. First, the instrument evaporates the molecule into the gas phase, giving it an electrical charge. These charged or ionized gas molecules can be manipulated with an electric or magnetic field and thus move through the instrument.
It then classifies the ions by measurements that scientists can relate to their molecular weight, allowing them to determine the number and types of atoms in the molecule. Third, the instrument records all “weights” in the sample along with their relative abundance.
Equipped with MOMA, the Rosalind Franklin rover will land on Mars, where water, a key ingredient of ancient life, was located about 4 billion years ago. The rover’s cameras and other equipment help select samples and provide context about the environment. The drill retrieves ancient samples from 2 meters deep. Scientists hypothesize that Mars is far enough away to be protected from cosmic radiation that breaks down molecules “like a million little knives.”
Mass spectrometers used in space must be rugged and lightweight. A mass spectrometer equipped with MOMA typically occupies multiple benches, which has been greatly reduced. “Being able to go from being the size of a room to being the size of a toaster or a small suitcase into space is huge,” he says.