Western space experts test new rover instrument

In this computer image, Rosalind Franklin approaches a slightly elevated area in
In this computer image, Rosalind Franklin approaches a slightly elevated area in Oxia Planum - the landing site for ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover on Mars. The terrain depicts a few mounds that could be the remains of some wind-eroded vents. Since fluids could have broken through the vents, this represents a very interesting formation to look for biosignatures - the evidence of past or present life. (ESA/Mlabspace)
The search for life beyond Earth is a major driver for space exploration. That’s why the discovery of clay minerals on Mars almost two decades ago continues to captivate scientists around the world. Clay formation is linked to rocks interacting with water and can tell us about the past habitability of Mars and thereby the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Western planetary geologists Livio Tornabene and Gordon Osinski are leading an international team to better understand how clays formed on Mars. Supported by a three-year Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Flights and Fieldwork for the Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST) grant, the researchers will provide important contributions to the European Space Agency ’s ExoMars 2028 Rosalind Franklin rover mission.

Tornabene and Osinski are co-investigators on the PanCam camera for the Rosalind Franklin rover and on a brand-new instrument, the Enfys spectrometer, named for the Welsh word for ’rainbow.’  Enfys is one of many instruments that will be attached to the Rosalind Franklin rover, headed to Mars in 2028, to help identify and determine the origin of the materials found on the planet’s surface. PanCam is a panoramic camera suite that sits about two metres atop the rover. Enfys and PanCam will work in synergy: PanCam is used to obtain colour and visual information of what lies around the rover, while Enfys’ job is to inform scientists of what minerals are present.

A computer-aided design (CAD) image of the Enfys spectrometer. (Matt Gunn/Aberystwyth University)

The Enfys spectrometer, a project led by Matt Gunn from Aberystwyth University in Wales and Peter Grindrod from the Natural History Museum in London, is funded by the U.K. Space Agency. It replaces the ill-fated Infrared Spectrometer for ExoMars (ISEM), the spectrometer previously developed by Roscosmos (the Russian space agency). A spectrometer is used to measure wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (light) that has interacted with a rock sample.

Livio Tornabene

"The goal of this project is to better ascertain the exact role that water has played in the formation of clay minerals on Mars," said Tornabene, an Earth sciences adjunct professor and research scientist. "Water on Mars and its role in the Red Planet’s formation remain hotly debated topics. There are clay-formation scenarios that do not require abundant surface water, through impact cratering for example, so answering these questions are key to determining early Martian conditions."

To achieve its goal, the team will help test the Enfys spectrometer for mission readiness, determining how to best use its data combined with PanCam images through a series of analogue, or simulated, Mars missions. The simulated mission will be executed at three unique clay-bearing field sites on Earth over three years: a meteorite impact site, a volcanic site and a surface sedimentary weathering site - all providing very different conditions for clay formation.

Using the knowledge built through tests on Earth, the outcomes of the project will feed forward into rover operations and science, as part of the 2028 mission, by informing the science team on how to best use these two instruments and their data to determine the origin of the clay found on Mars.

Each field site was evaluated by Western-trained planetary geologist and clay mineralogy expert, Matthew Svensson, who co-developed the concept for the CSA proposal and is now a co-investigator on the project.

"Each simulated Mars mission will be followed by laboratory analyses of samples of clay-bearing rocks observed in the field by PanCam and Enfys," said Svensson, a former postdoctoral researcher at Western now a geologist with Geologic AI. "These laboratory analyses will validate the data collected by the emulators during the simulated missions, enable optimization of future Enfys field tests and improve readiness for exploring the Oxia Planum region of Mars."

Oxia Planum, located near the Martian equator and containing deposits that are nearly four billion years old, was chosen as the landing site for the 2028 ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover mission due to its safety and extensive clay-bearing surfaces detected from orbit. However, the exact conditions of clay formation on Mars remain contested, considering their varied geologic origins here on Earth and other planetary bodies.

Gordon (Oz) Osinski

"Our results will contribute to addressing the ExoMars program objectives, which are key to achieving mission success," said Osinski, an Earth sciences professor. "This project serves to train Canadian students in planetary exploration mission-related expertise, enabling Canada’s ongoing participation in future missions. It also aims to strengthen Canada’s international partnerships and hopes to engage the public in the upcoming Mars rover mission, fostering more excitement and interest in space exploration."

The outcome of this project will provide the international team with a better understanding of possible formation conditions for Oxia Planum clays and how we might best characterize them with Enfys and PanCam on Mars.

"This project will provide us with a valuable opportunity to test Enfys alongside PanCam to detect and characterize clays," said Gunn, Enfys principal investigator. "As Enfys is a late addition to the mission, we have a lot of work to do in learning to use the instrument to maximum effect, and this project will provide a great opportunity to try things out and feed back into the development for the instrument, its data processing pipeline and the plans for how we will operate it on Mars."