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Science and Innovations

Arizona Scientists Send Instrument To Mars On Arab Spacecraft ‘Hope’

Bonnie Stevens / KNAU file photo

Mars is getting crowded. Eight working spacecraft currently explore its surface or orbit above it; and this summer three new missions are headed for the Red Planet. One of those is an orbiter called Hope, the first-ever Mars mission launched by the United Arab Emirates. It’s carrying an instrument built by scientists at Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with NAU’s Christopher Edwards about his hopes for the latest addition to the Mars fleet. 

Just tell me a bit about this mission, Hope.

So we’re going to try to link what’s going on with basically weather on Mars and how that affects how Mars is changing with time in its atmosphere. The way we’re going to do this is by getting this really globally comprehensive view… Hope is going to provide this full daily sampling of weather on Mars on really short time scales, so it’s basically a Mars weather map that we’ll get every day or couple days. That’s going to allow us to link the processes in the lower atmosphere to how Mars is currently losing its atmosphere.  

So you and your team built an infrared spectrometer. First off, what exactly is that?

It’s an instrument that will measure the light from 6 microns to 100 microns in wavelength. 100 microns is the diameter of your hair, so we’re talking about really long waves. It’s watching the surface of Mars and measuring the energy coming off that surface. Even when something’s cold, it still emits energy: I emit energy, you emit energy, and you can measure that with this type of instrument. What this is going to do, is break up the wavelengths of light into many, many pieces … to understand what the Martian atmosphere is made of, so how much dust is the atmosphere, how much ice is the atmosphere, how much water vapor is in the atmosphere. Then based on how much CO2 is in the atmosphere we can determine the profile of temperature of the atmosphere, which is kind of amazing, just by looking straight down.

So how do you hope all of that data—dust, ice, CO2, all of those details—how’s that going to help you solve this mystery of why the atmosphere is disappearing?

It’s a great question, and it’s going to be hard, is the short version. But what we know right now is that these parameters are coupled together. When we see more dust in the atmosphere, we see the temperature get warmer in the atmosphere, and the atmosphere of Mars actually expands. What we don’t know exactly is how that expansion is going to link to the rates that Mars atmosphere is escaping…. So we’ll be able to say: hey Mars’ atmosphere puffed up and now we see enhanced loss. Or maybe Mars’ atmosphere puffs up and we see decreased loss—I don’t know what we’re going to see!... All this stuff is really completely unknown.

You’ve worked on numerous Mars missions, what’s been your experience working across an ocean with a country where it’s their very first Mars mission?

It’s pretty amazing…. The UAE came to universities in the U.S. and said, ‘you’ve worked with NASA, let’s work with you and see if we can think about doing a mission in a totally different way.’ This project isn’t just about science. It’s about relationships, training, and developing a community, and helping develop a space program for a country that wants to inspire their people. 

Christopher Edwards, good luck on the mission and thanks for talking with me.

Thanks, Melissa.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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