Scientists at the University of Leicester's Space Research Centre are recreating the hostile environment found on Mars in their laboratory, with a device known as the Martian Environment Simulator (MES). The machine reproduces the temperature, air pressure and unbreathable atmosphere known to exist on Mars. The MES is currently being used to test equipment on the Beagle 2 lander, part of the European Space Agency's Mars Express Spacecraft and due to arrive on Mars during Christmas 2003. The chance of Beagle 2 finding life, either current or past, on the red planet has increased recently due to the discovery of ice beneath the planet's surface. The MES will be used to test all future instruments for planetary science being developed at the Space Research Centre.
Instruments that work in space need to be thoroughly tested to ensure that they will work in the extreme conditions found there and also to calibrate the readings that will be transmitted back to Earth. Researchers need to be sure that the gases in the atmosphere of another planet will not cause electrical arcing that damages the instruments. The MES creates an environment where the air is made mostly of carbon dioxide and the temperature can vary between a freezing minus 10 degrees Celsius (Martian daytime temperature) and a deadly minus 80 degrees (Martian night). The Martian air pressure at the surface is only 6mbar compared to an average pressure of 1bar on Earth. This means that the air pressure at surface level is lower than that at which the highest altitude commercial flights can travel at on Earth!
The MES incorporates a special sample wheel where geological materials can be attached, making it possible to test instruments designed to analyse rocks or soil on the surface of Mars.
Images of the MES, Mars Express and Mars are available at www.pparc.ac.uk or from Gill Ormrod in the PPARC press office.
Credit: MES - University of Leicester
Mars1 - Copyright NASA, Picture taken using the Hubble Space Telescope
Features - Copyright Jim Bell, Cornell University
Mars Express1 - Artists impression, Copyright ESA/Medialab
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The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.
PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), and the European Space Agency. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank observatory.
PPARC`s Public Understanding of Science and Technology Awards Scheme funds both small local projects and national initiatives aimed at improving public understanding of its areas of science.