11/10/2018

We will explore mars

In the “space race among universities, MIPT (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology), of course, plays in the top league. Among the things proving this is the first scientific device developed by a Russian university to reach the surface of another planet. The multichannel Martian diode-laser spectrometer, or M-DLS as it appears in the technical documentation, will go to the Red Planet as part of the scientific equipment complex of the ExoMars landing platform in 2020.

This story began almost ten years ago, when MIPT became a member of the National Research Universities development program, which made it possible to purchase its own equipment
and build world-class scientific laboratories on campus. The next step was taken in 2011, when, as a result of a competition organized by the RF Ministry of Education and Science, a MIPT-based laboratory for high-resolution infrared spectroscopy of planetary atmospheres was created. This was done through a joint effort with the Space Research Institute (SRI) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. At that time, its leader was Vladimir Krasnopolsky, one of the most cited planetary scientists in the world. In 2016, as a result of a reorganization, it received its current name — the Applied Infrared Spectroscopy Lab (abbreviated as AIRS), and Alexander Rodin was appointed its head.

From the very beginning, the laboratory worked to improve spectroscopic methods for analyzing planetary atmospheres with an extremely high spectral resolution. True, at the time of its creation, it was almost impossible to increase the resolution through “classical optical techniques, and the specialists turned to the new methods of laser spectroscopy. Put simply, in the course of such studies, the medium is irradiated with monochromatic (more simply, single-color) laser radiation, the frequency of which is tuned in a special way near the quantum transition of interest. Such an adjustment allows one to notice the most subtle features of the radiation spectrum and determine not only the molecular, but also the isotopic composition of the substance, as well as its temperature, pressure, and even the flow rate.

The method of ultrahigh-resolution heterodyne laser spectroscopy was developed and first implemented anywhere in the world at the AIRS laboratory. It makes it possible to measure the characteristics of the medium not only in the experimental cell of the device, but also remotely, for example, by the spectrum of the solar radiation transmitted through the atmosphere. Thus, it is possible, for example, to investigate the mechanisms of global climate change and control greenhouse gas emissions by checking satellite monitoring data. The competition in this area is very fierce, and the closest rivals of MIPT are from the Goddard NASA Space Flight Center. When our employees meet them at conferences, they can’t conceal their interest in the results obtained at Dolgoprudny, where the lab is located. The interdisciplinary nature of the research carried out by the laboratory, as well as and the world-class results obtained convinced the management of the ExoMars project of its scientific significance. More importantly, they recognized the possibility of carrying out an experiment to study the atmosphere of the Red Planet using a laser spectrometer.

ExoMars is the first major deep space exploration project that our country has implemented jointly with the European Space Agency (ESA). This collaboration is based on longstanding scientific ties dating back to the Soviet era. Now, this may be surprising, but during the Cold War, the participation of foreign specialists in the development of scientific instruments sent to other planets aboard Soviet interplanetary stations was common practice. Subsequently, the prior successful cooperation with ESA allowed our country to continue researching deep space in the difficult times after the collapse of the USSR. Despite the failures with the Mars-96 and Phobos-Grunt projects, the devices developed by Russian specialists have successfully worked on the ESA interplanetary spacecraft Mars Express and Venus Express, NASA’s spacecraft Mars Odyssey and MRO, and the Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Therefore, the equal partnership between Roscosmos and ESA in the ExoMars mission, which began in 2016 with the launch of the TGO orbiter to Mars, with the Russian ACS infrared spectrometers on board, became quite a natural continuation of this cooperation.

The next stage of the mission will be the launch of the European Mars rover Pasteur, which will be delivered to the planet’s surface by a Russian landing platform. The M-DLS spectrometer conceived at MIPT will operate as part of the scientific equipment complex of this platform, which, after the rover lands, will continue to exist autonomously as a research probe. The device is being developed in cooperation with the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which manufactures the hardware and connects it with the landing platform at the Lavochkin Science and Production Association. MIPT develops the most important part, really, the brain of the device, the control electronics and software, in which all the physics of the experiment is “wired up. In addition, MIPT supplied the Space Research Institute with the key elements of a specialized workplace, in which, after careful control
and certification, the final assembly of the equipment will take place before it is sent to Mars.

The scientific tasks of the experiment include high-precision measurement of the isotopic composition of carbon dioxide — the main component of the Martian atmosphere — and water vapor. Due to the low temperatures, they are present there is only trace amounts, but they still affect the Martian weather. Isotope methods are considered the most accurate and reliable in geochemistry, they help to reconstruct the history of the formation of the planet and the climatic systems of its geological past. At the same time, for the successful application of these methods, measurements must be carried out with unprecedented accuracy. That is why a laser spectrometer that has no competitors in terms of sensitivity was included in the mission. Due to limitations of mass, it was decided to abandon the most intriguing task in modern Mars research — the detection of methane. Nevertheless, the minds behind the experiment are confident that it will make a significant contribution to the achievement of the main goal of the ExoMars mission — identifying the conditions for the existence of primitive life forms on the Red Planet.

Creating an onboard instrument on an interplanetary vehicle as part of an international research project is not just an ambitious scientific and engineering project. It is also an excellent advertisement for the capabilities of MIPT. The developers of the device are confident that following their fame in international scientific circles, they will acquire stable business ties in the high-tech industry. That’s where the tasks of precision chemical and isotope analysis are still being solved by foreign technologies.
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Author: Alexander Rodin
Header Photo: A trainee from Japan, Kosuki Takami, leader of the M-DLS experiment, Sergei Zenevich, and head of the AIRS laboratory, Alexander Rodin, with a prototype heterodyne laser spectrometer on the roof of the Applied Mathematics Building (AMB) at MIPT

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