Science

Scottish university scientist chosen to pilot Mars rover

The Rosalind Franklin is Europe's first planetary rover that will search for signs of past or present life on Mars.

A scientist from a university in Scotland has been chosen to join the team piloting the European Space Agency’s Mars rover when it launches in 2022.

Dr Christian Schroeder, of the University of Stirling, is one of five “guest investigators” from Europe, Russia and Canada, who will lead the European-Russian ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover’s mission on the Red planet in September next year.

The Rosalind Franklin is set to land at the Oxia Planum point on Mars in June 2023 where it will spend a minimum of 211 “sols” (Martian days), equivalent to 230 Earth days, searching for organic carbon molecules that could indicate whether or not there was ever life on Mars.

The rover is the first to carry a drill long enough to explore molecules up to two metres below the surface, where they would be protected from the harsh radiation on the planet’s surface.

ExoMars rover complete
The European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover Rosalin Franklin is Europe’s first planetary rover that will search for signs of past or present life on Mars (Aaron Chown/PA)

It carries a total of nine scientific instruments to locate the best sites for drilling and analysing samples found.

Once the rover has landed, Dr Schroeder will be based at the Rover Operation Control Centre in Turin, Italy, where the team will guide the device over the surface of Mars.

“This mission has been in the making for a long time and it will be great to see it finally take off, and significant to be in a leading role when that happens,” he said.

Dr Schroeder was part of the team operating Nasa’s twin Mars exploration rovers, Sprit and Opportunity, from 2003 to 2019.

The mission found a previous presence of liquid water on the Martian surface – the most important prerequisite for life.

“Over the last two decades we have learned that there was plenty of liquid water on Mars more than 3.5 billion years ago – at that time, Earth and Mars were very similar and life was already well established on Earth,” Dr Schroeder said.

“So it’s conceivable that there was life on Mars, too. But even if we find the right signs, was that life independent of life on Earth? Or was it the result of meteorite exchange between Earth and Mars?

“If it was independent – and life originated twice within our solar system – then the universe could be swarming with life. If not, that would be less likely.”

A senior lecturer in biological and environmental sciences, Dr Schroeder’s expertise spans earth sciences and planetary exploration.

He is specifically interested in the interaction between iron minerals and carbon molecules, which can give an indication of the kind of life there might have been.

The announcement comes about two months after the Scottish Government launched plans for the Scottish Space Strategy – which aims to provide 20,000 jobs.

The strategy sets out aims to develop a network of satellite launch sites, pursue green technologies and build on existing strengths in data analysis and research.

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