Canadians will once again be at the forefront of the ongoing exploration of Mars as it was announced yesterday by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) that they would be contributing to ExoMars mission. Canada’s contribution will be the shared development with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer (MATMOS) instrument onboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. MATMOS is scheduled for launch in 2016.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is one element in the ESA-NASA ExoMars programme whose purpose is to demonstrate a number of essential flight and in-situ enabling technologies that are necessary for future exploration missions including a critical Mars Sample Return mission. Other elements include the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) Demonstrator and two rovers, one developed by NASA and the other by ESA.
MATMOS will help scientists attempt to solve the mystery of methane on Mars by confirming seasonal distribution patterns, and providing new interpretations of the origin of the gas on Mars. Methane was discovered on Mars in 2003 in greater abundance than expected. It is a possible biomarker for signs of life, since the gas is readily produced by biological activity.
“MATMOS will provide a fingerprint of the Mars atmosphere that will help unlock the mystery of mars methane. The key is MATMOS’ very high sensitivity. It will be able to measure the distribution of methane and other trace gases in the atmosphere with altitude and season -where and when they appear will provide clues to the surface and climate processes that produce them,” says Dr Victoria Hipkin, senior planetary scientist at the CSA, who will be co-Principal Investigator for MATMOS along with Dr Paul Wennberg of Caltech. “The potential for discovery is very exciting,” Hipkin adds.
The Canadian science team includes prominent Canadian atmospheric and planetary researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax (Dr James Drummond); the University of Toronto (Drs Jonathan Abbatt, Barbara Sherwood-Lollar, Kimberly Strong, and Kaley Walker),York University (Dr Jack McConnell) and the University of Winnipeg (Dr Ed Cloutis).
The CSA will fund the conceptual phase of the Canadian contribution to MATMOS, and has selected ABB Bomem of Quebec City as the prime contractor for the Canadian elements. Canada’s contribution will include the heart of the instrument: the critical subsystem of a detection instrument known as an interferometer; a solar imager; and optical components that will collect light for the entire instrument.