Mobile Surveying for Atmospheric and Near-Surface Biosignature Gases

Dr. Gary Anderson and team have received a NASA EPSCoR grant to investigate using robots to find extraterrestrial water.

One of the greatest challenges in science today is to find living organisms that
originate outside of Earth. A prime place to begin this quest is the neighboring
planet of Mars, which once closely resembled early Earth. Because the surface of
Mars today is incompatible with any known life, any living organisms would long
ago needed to retreat underground. In this project, we look for signs of buried life
by scanning the near-surface atmosphere for signs of gases of biological origin.
Since these gases dissipate relatively rapidly in the Martian atmosphere, any excess concentrations must be due to a buried source. We monitor for biogenic gases such as methane by placing an open path spectrometer on a robot and examining the atmosphere between the robot and a distant retroreflector. If the target gases are found, the robot performs a search routine to localize the source of the emissions.

Once localized, other instruments can seek buried soil samples for further
investigations. The need to use low mass, low bulk and low power instruments
makes this a challenging project. We need students with skills in optical design,
instrumentation, electronics, control systems, robotics and instrumentation.

Some of this work is documented here.

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