ESA plans to explore Mars using lasers

PARIS. The European Space Agency (ESA) is now investigating how lasers would be best used in future space missions.

“We fire a laser at a material of interest,” explains Melissa McHugh of Leicester University (U.K.), “and measure how much its color is changed as it scatters off the surface, to identify the molecules responsible. This is a well-established technique terrestrially – used in all kinds of fields from security to pharmacology to art history – either in labs or using handheld devices.”

ESA reports that its rover will carry the first such laser-equipped unit into space in 2020 to help search out potential biomarkers of past or present life on Mars and look for mineral remnants of the planet’s warm, wet past. NASA's own 2020 will carry a similar instrument on an external mast for remote sensing of Martian topography.

Says McHugh of the project: “There’s a lot of excitement in taking this powerful technique and using it on other planets, but of course there are all kinds of mass, volume, and data relay restrictions ... For instance, there’s some indication that rather than requiring sophisticated instruments for remote sensing, there are ways to optimize existing space-qualified CCD cameras to make them suitable.”

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