MAHRS on Mars: Looking at Weather and Habitat on the Surface
When human explorers embark on the journey to Mars, they need to know the natural conditions of the red planet before they arrive. That’s why NASA sends rovers to the surface of Mars to photograph the landscape and operate scientific experiments to understand the habitat for humans or other kinds of life.
One of those future rover missions may host the Martian Aqueous Habitat Reconnaissance Suite (MAHRS), a set of five instruments that can take surface measurements in the search for habitable environments.
Developed at NASA Glenn in partnership with the University of Michigan, MAHRS is specifically focused on searching for wet brine environments in the shallow subsurface of Mars.
“Brine environments are where you would look for life,” says Project Manager Dan Vento. “Any water that exists today on Mars would likely be in the form of a brine if is in a liquid state.”
The MAHRS research hardware includes an optical microscope to study the size and characteristics of settling dust on Mars. The 4” x 4” cube is outfitted with a sensor, a circuit board and a microscope lens turned upward. When Martian dust settles on the top of the settling glass, the lens can take high-resolution images for scientific evaluation.
“The interesting feature about the microscope, is that the electronics architecture can support a camera lens or hyperspectral sensor depending on the scientific goals of the mission,” says Norman Prokop, NASA Glenn engineer.
Mounted to the microscope, a radiometer measures the amount of solar energy absorbed at the surface to study the amount of dust in the Martian atmosphere. Less energy making it to the surface means more dust in the atmosphere is absorbing the solar energy.
A saltation probe, which would hang vertically off the bottom of a rover, measures the impact of soil and dust swirling on the Martian surface. Because it’s close to the ground, it can measure the impact, mass and velocity of soil as it hits the probe, giving researchers an indication of wind energy and soil movement.
In partnership with the University of Michigan, scientists have developed a soil wetness sensor, which measures water content on the surface and detects the formation of liquid brines.
And finally, Michigan engineers are testing an electric field sensor to measure electrical charges in the atmosphere caused by airborne dust. As it sits and spins on a rover arm, it will measure weather patterns and indicate the level of erosion on Mars.
As NASA seeks to develop more sophisticated scientific devices for solar system exploration, this integrated suite of instruments can potentially advance NASA’s understanding of wind and weather conditions on the surface of Mars and the implications for habitability.