The PIXL instrument is coated in gold to protect it from harmful radiation from the sun and to maintain the right temperature. Photo: Jeppe Mølgaard.

DTU has completed technology for Mars mission

Tuesday 13 Nov 18
After many years of development, researchers from DTU Space celebrate their completion of the technology that will search for signs of life on Mars on NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission.

“Having completed and sent off the hardware is a major milestone, but we still have a ways to go. Now it must be mounted on the rover and tested at NASA before launch, so we are sure not to run into unexpected surprises,” says David Pedersen, Assistant Professor at DTU Space, who took part in the development of the equipment as part of his PhD programme.

The PIXL instrument, as the equipment is called, is an X-ray spectrometer fitted with an advanced camera and navigation system, which will be mounted on a robotic vehicle—a so-called Mars rover. Using a structured light, the camera’s job is to guide the instrument to rock formations for examination.

The instrument uses a focused beam of X-rays to perform a very high-resolution examination of the elemental composition of rocks on Mars. If biological micro-cells have at some point lived on the planet, the instrument will be able to find traces of them in the form of deposits on the rocks.

“It is a great honour to have helped develop the technology that will answer some of the big questions; whether there is life beyond Earth,” says David Pedersen.

Must work on first try
When developing technology for a mission taking place 200 million kilometres from Earth, ultra-precision is key. Even the tiniest malfunction may jeopardise the entire mission.

“The team’s invariable mantra has been ‘Fly as you test, test as you fly.’ This means that all tests we do must match the actual mission, so we can avoid any surprises once the rover is on Mars,” says David Pedersen.

The DTU Space team has tested the technology in Denmark under the exact same conditions it will be exposed to on Mars; Cosmic radiation and temperature variations of more than 100 degrees Celsius from day to night.

‘Metal contracts and expands according to the temperature. This presents a big challenge when operating with the high temperature variations that characterize Mars surface. The PIXL instrument is one of the most complex instruments designed for a Mars rover. In order to fit onto the rover, the instrument has been reduced from the size of two large refrigerators to only 20 x 20 x 20cm,” says David Pedersen.

With the DTU Space equipment, the Mars rover will be sent to Mars on one of NASA’s space rockets in the summer of 2020. It will land around six months later.