Life on Mars: Russian detector to help crack enigma

NASA’s latest Mars mission takes off on Saturday carrying a huge array of high-tech tools. Critical to its success is a cutting-edge water detector built by Russian scientists.

­RT’s Darya Pushkova has been to meet the people behind the device.

The Red Planet has been a source of wild flights of imagination and scientific speculation for centuries. Getting there has never been easy – many missions have failed.

But hopes are high for the new rover. It is called “Curiosity,” and it is due on Mars next year.

­The ultimate question

­The science laboratory on board will seek to find answers to a number of questions – first and foremost, whether there has ever been life on the Red Planet.

“One of the greatest mysteries of Mars is that its surface is streaked with what looks like former rivers and streams,” says Dr. Igor Mitrofanov from the Space Research Institute in Moscow. “Almost everyone agrees that early Mars was warm and wet, similar to Earth – with rivers, lakes and rains. There was a theory the water evaporated together with the Martian atmosphere, but we seem to have discovered it may have sunk inside the planet in the form of permafrost.”

Click to enlarge. (Photo from Photo from http://www.nasa.gov)
Click to enlarge. (Photo from Photo from http://www.nasa.gov)

­Search for water – search for life

­For this mission, Russian scientists have created a unique device. It will point the rover to places where water might have accumulated – whether it is in ice or encased in underground minerals, as imagined in the blockbuster sci-fi movie “Total Recall.”

What looks like an ordinary case conceals the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, or simply DAN to its friends. It weighs no more than two packs of sugar and may be not much to look at, but it is in fact an impressive piece of high-tech hardware. Based on borehole equipment used for finding oil, the one-meter-long neutron generator has been turned into a small, light and compact one.

Engineer Aleksey Bitulev told RT that the heart of the device is a tiny tube that produces neutrons capable of penetrating up to one meter below the planet’s surface. And Sergey Sholeninov, head of the design team, added that the challenge was to accommodate the device onboard a spacecraft.

“We were not only limited in weight – it also has to endure all the hardships of interplanetary flight.”

DAN’s second half is a hydrogen detector, which will act as the probe’s aqua navigator.

“The rover is like a small car, and our device is placed on it like headlights,” Mitrofanov explained. “So as the pulsing neutron generator shoots, neutrons go under the ground, and feel their way under. If liquid or frozen water is there, it can then be measured with our detector.”

And the Rover comes fully-loaded: 17 high-definition cameras, aluminum wheels that can be steered independently, a mounted laser to vaporize rock and a robotic arm to drill and scoop up samples, among other instruments. Under the hood: a nuclear-powered engine to give it a top crawling speed of five centimeters per second.

With this arsenal, once the DAN device pinpoints the right spot, the lab will start its meticulous work, and mankind will hold its breath for one of the most elusive answers in space exploration.