Mars has been a goal for space travel for some time, largely because of the supposition that it can sustain microbial life. In order to mimic the conditions that are believed to exist on Mars, Spanish researchers have developed a vacuum chamber they have dubbed MARTE, which can simulate all, or at least most, of the Martian conditions. It is believed that, in replicating these conditions, various pieces of equipment will be effectively tested for use on Martian soil.
MARTE is designed to replicate most of the Martian conditions, ranging from the temperature extremes to the potential for dust storms. Temperatures can range from -265 F to 301 F, and atmospheric pressure is 100 times less than that on Earth. The atmosphere is also 95 percent carbon dioxide; all of these factors are taken into consideration with MARTE. University of Madrid physicist and study author Jose Angel Martin-Gago says he believes one of the most significant issues that need to be mitigated, at least as far as the equipment goes, is the dust that exists on Mars.
To replicate the effect of the Martian dust, scientists set up two sieves, each with openings 63 microns wide, or the same thickness as human hair. This effectively replicates the random nature of how the dust scatters throughout the planet’s atmosphere and, in establishing such conditions with the vacuum chamber MARTE, equipment that could be used in future missions to Mars can be effectively tested. In having Martian conditions replicated in a lab, the Spanish team of scientists that helmed the study will be able to help NASA and other scientists effectively determine how best to mitigate the pressure changes that can sometimes occur on Mars, as has been discovered with the Curiosity rover and the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station that is installed onboard.
It has been discovered that carbon dioxide condensation can cause pressure changes of just a few millibars on the REMS and Curiosity rover, and this alone can create some problems for equipment, according to the conditions recreated on MARTE. The scientists suggest that using helium instead of carbon dioxide might be more effective in demonstrating the effects of cold atmospheres on equipment, based on what they discovered during their study.
MARTE was built over the course of a year at the cost of $200,000, and funds came from the Secretary of State for Research, Innovation and Development through the Ministry of the Economy and Competitiveness; the Centro de Astrobiologia, and MEC, SOLID. At this point, one of the few things that MARTE can not replicate is the gravity that exists on Martian soil or the planet’s volume, though the scientists have clearly demonstrated that Martian conditions can be effectively replicated in a lab setting. Both of these issues can cause issues for the instrumentation that will be making its way to the planet on future missions. It is believed that the scientific team’s findings, published in the March 2014 edition of Review of Scientific Instruments, will go a long way towards helping scientists understand the impact of the Martian environment, which has been deemed toxic due to the levels of red dust throughout the planet, on the instrumentation that future missions may bring to the Red Planet.
by Christina St-Jean