Man in search of life on Mars

MARS MISSION: Computer generated image issued by NASA depicting the Curiosity rover, of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission

MARS MISSION: Computer generated image issued by NASA depicting the Curiosity rover, of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission

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AN Onchan company is once again boldly going where no other Manx firm has gone before – in the search for life on Mars.

Components produced by Second Avenue-based CVI Technical Optics Ltd have been installed on the NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity which successfully touched down on the red planet earlier this week.

Laser optics supplied by CVI will be used to analyse rocks found on Mars.

The $2.6 billion Curiosity made its dramatic arrival on Martian terrain on Monday following a jaw-dropping ‘seven minutes of terror’ during which a sky crane and the world’s largest supersonic parachute were used to allow the spacecraft carrying the rover to target the chosen landing area. The spacecraft had been travelling from Earth since November 26 on a journey of about 352 million miles, according to NASA.

Curiosity, which is controlled from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, boasts a full suite of sophisticated tools for exploring Mars, including 17 cameras, a laser that can survey the composition of rocks from a distance and instruments that can analyse samples from soil or rocks.

The aim of its work is to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms.

NASA has already obtained some 297 low-resolution colour images sent to Earth from its rover.

This is not the time that CVI’s equipment has been used to search for life on Mars.

Components produced by the company were used on the Phoenix Mars Lander, the craft which touched down near Mars’ north pole in March 2008 and enthralled the world by beaming back historic first pictures of the barren landscape of the unexplored far north of the planet.

CVI’s high-tech optical equipment was an essential part of the Lidar – Laser Induced Detecting and Ranging – system which was part of Phoenix’s weather station.

Lidar worked by sending out a laser beam into the atmosphere and analysing gas compounds by looking at the wave lengths in the spectrum that are absorbed.

CVI’s general manager, Dr Helmut Kessler, said that this time round the company’s optics would be used in a laser not to probe the atmosphere but to test the rocks.

He said: ‘The laser will be fired at rock samples to anaylse what chemical elements are in them. The mission is to try to establish if there is water on Mars which will tell us whether in the past it has sustained life.

‘If there is water it will make life a bit easier if there is going to be a manned mission to Mars in the future.’

Dr Kessler said he had watched the live images of the rover landing on Mars. He said the mission would be ‘absolutely fascinating’: ‘It will improve our knowledge of the red planet.’

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