Mars Simulation Chamber Mimics Planet's Atmosphere, Right Down To The Red Dust

By Ben Wolford on March 25, 2014 11:01 AM EDT

This simulation chamber, called MARTE, can recreate the atmosphere of Mars to test instruments for future missions. (Photo: J. Martín-Gago/ICMM)

This simulation chamber, called MARTE, can recreate the atmosphere of Mars to test instruments for future missions. (Photo: J. Martín-Gago/ICMM)

When visiting an alien world, it's good to know your equipment will withstand the new atmospheric conditions. China's moon rover Jade Rabbit is an immobile, cautionary tale: its gears malfunctioned, possibly because of lunar dust, leaving sensitive instruments exposed to debilitating cold. Chinese officials cited the "complicated lunar surface environment."

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In the lead-up to future, probably manned, missions to Mars, NASA wants to be sure the complicated Martian surface environment doesn't gum up the works. On Tuesday, NASA collaborators in Spain announced they've constructed a small vacuum chamber, custom designed to mimic the conditions on Mars, right down to the pesky red dust.

"We're simulating the effect of the Martian dust — one of the primary problems for planetary exploration — to gain a better understanding of how instruments behave when covered in dust," said Jesus Sobrado, a scientist with the Instituto de Ciencias de Materials de Madrid who led the chamber's technical development, in a statement. The machine can also recreate the temperature, pressure, gas composition, and radiation of the planet.

Compared to the temperate, life-giving conditions on Earth, the surface of Mars is a death trap for the unprepared. Oxygen is virtually nonexistent, the air overwhelmingly carbon dioxide. But there's hardly any gas at all; the atmosphere there is 100 times thinner than on Earth. Because Mars is 141.6 million miles from the sun (Earth is 93 million miles), it's much colder on Mars, with temperatures sitting around -80 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be much colder or warmer depending on your latitude. The planet is prone to massive dust storms of reddish iron oxide particles, and it can even snow there, not in frozen water but in microscopic carbon dioxide flakes.

This team of researchers in Spain specializes in recreating extra-terrestrial landscapes. Other than Mars, they say they've also simulated Jupiter's moon Europa and the spatial vacuum of our solar system and between the stars of the Milky Way galaxy. But Mars is the hottest subject at the Institute these days, considering NASA's stated mission to send fresh instruments to Mars by 2020 and humans not long after that. They're also working on something called the "Sign of Life Detector," which can scan soil or ice samples for telltale antibodies.

"Mars is a good place to learn about planets similar to ours and, as such, is the target of many NASA and European Space Agency missions," says Jose Angel Martín-Gago, an Instituto de Ciencias de Materials professor, in the statement. "Our group is primarily involved in the Mars Science Laboratory mission to construct a meteorological station intended for future use on a rover to further explore Mars' surface."

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