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Alien-hunting camera attached to ExoMars rover as it prepares for blast off for Mars

Sarah Knapton
Engineers at Airbus testing the new

The question of whether life exists on Mars may finally be answered in 2021 when a British-built rover starts drilling deep into the Red Planet’s surface looking for signs of alien habitation.

Engineers at Airbus in Hertfordshire are this week installing a suite of cameras on the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover, the final step before it leaves for testing in France, ahead of launching next year.

It is scheduled to land on March 19th 2021, and after around ten days of equipment checks will begin hunting for life.

University College London (UCL) has designed the ‘Pan-Cam’ system, which sits on top of the rover’s high mast and is fitted with special filters to scan the Martian surface looking for minerals that would prove there was once liquid water that could have hosted extraterrestrial organisms. 

Once a watery location is discovered, the rover will trundle to the spot at a speed of around 47 inches an hour, before drilling six-and-a-half feet down into the ground to take samples.

The Martian rocks are then fed through an aperture on the rover into a mobile laboratory  where they are crushed up and examined for organic matter. Confirmation of life could come within just weeks or months of the rover landing.

The ExoMars rover being assembled in a clean room at Airbus' factory in Stevenage, Hertfordshire  Credit: Eddie Mulholland 

Sue Horne, Head of Space Exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “Mars is really inhospitable and all the rovers so far have been scraping around on the surface and they haven’t found anything yet.

“Analysis of radiation damage and that is shown that you have to get one metre below the surface to get to regions that haven’t been affected. 

“One of the unique features of the ExoMars rover is the capability to drill down further than any other rover so far. 

“Pan Cam is critical for the science. The minerals show us where life might have once been. The filters have been optimised to look for specific water rich minerals, and clay based minerals like jarosite, and also the stratification and sediments which could have been laid down by a river.

“We will retrieve pellets of the samples which will be crushed and analysed, and there are instruments there that will determine the chemicals associated with life and past life.”

In 2013, hopes were raised in the search for life on Mars when Nasa’s Curiosity rover recorded methane ‘burps’ - a waste product of organisms on Earth. Scientists now think the gas probably came from geological activity, and believe there is little chance of finding living organisms on the planet.

However there may be evidence of ancient life buried deep in the surface, where traces would not be destroyed by radiation from the Sun. Similar signs of ancient life have been detected in the rocks beneath Antarctica.  

Around 3.8 billion years ago, when life was getting going on Earth, Mars had liquid water on its surface and an atmosphere. Some experts have even speculated that life on Earth may have come from Mars - a process known as panspermia. 

Last year Airbus tested the rover in Spain  Credit: Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

Mary Carter, Pan-Cam project manager at UCL, said: “Mars was once covered in water just like the Earth and at the same time life was developing on Earth potentially life could have been developing on Mars.”

The team must comply with rules set out by Cospar, the UN’s Committee on Space Research, which states they cannot transport more than 9,800 bacterial or viral spores - known as colony forming units (CFUs) to the surface. Not only could it pollute the planet, but it would also skew the science.

Just 0.4 square inches (1cm) of skin generally contains 10,000 CFUs so if scientists were to leave just one fingerprint on the rover before launch it would need to be surgically cleaned all over again. 

Cleanliness is so crucial that the assembly engineers must wear hairnets, hoods, two pairs of sterile gloves, sterile overalls and facemasks. They even wear goggles to prevent eyelashes straying in to the machinery, and one person - dubbed the ‘clean buddy’ must sit on a chair watching colleagues to make sure they don’t touch their faces and contaminate the equipment.

The rover will look for signs that water once existed on the planet then drill down into the surface  Credit: Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph 

Anna Nash, of UCL, who is responsible for ‘planetary protection’ for the Pan-Cam project said: “Everything goes through a seven step solvent clean. We use sterile swabs to swab everything down. We then send off the equipment to a seperate lab and incubate for three days to see if there is any bacterial growth.

“If we do get a contamination the whole clean room needs recleaning.

“If you have a situation where a tool is dropped on the floor, that has to be sent away for cleaning which can take a week.”

Later this month the rover will be shipped to Airbus in Toulouse, France, for a series of mechanical vibration tests to ensure it cansurvive the bumpy conditions of launch, as well as thermal testing to make sure it can withstand the frozen nights of Mars, where temperatures dip to -238F (-150C) before rising to 68F (20C), in the day.

Europe has never made a successful soft landing on Mars. In 2003 the Beagle 2 probe failed to open its solar panels, and a dress rehearsal for the ExoMars rover in 2016 crash landed. Recent parachute tests for the landing module have also failed. 

The mission is costing around £1.5 billion Euros and more funding is coming from the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, who are launching the rover from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. 

The rover has been named ‘Rosalind Franklin’, the first person to photograph DNA, leading James Watson and Francis Crick to uncover its double-helix structure.