Saturday, March 12, 2011

Going to Mars ~ in Morocco?

The online magazine Astrobiology is hardly the first place that The View from Fez team checks each day for Morocco-related stories. Today is different. In a fascinating article by Leslie Mullen, the article describes the testing of Mars vehicles in the rocky wastes of Morocco. Here is an edited excerpt with a link to the full story.

“This site is called Moon 2,” says Gian Gabriele Ori of the International Research School of Planetary Sciences (IRSPS). He pauses, looks around, and then says with a laugh, “I don’t remember the reason why.”

Aerial view of the Moon2 test site. Image Credit: Ibn Battuta Centre

In fact, the wide plain where Ori is standing resembles the planet Mars much more than the dusty grey Moon. This valley east of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains has a profusion of red, black and tan rocks scattered about as far as the eye can see. The distant mountains on the horizon call to mind the walls of an ancient impact crater as photographed by the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Even the volcanic origin of many of the rocks here is similar to the geological history of Mars.

Ori and his colleagues recently brought a group of scientists to this remote region near the Algerian border, where many of the instruments being developed for the upcoming ExoMars missions will be put through their paces. The missions, joint ventures of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), will study the Martian atmosphere, geology, and water cycle, and also search for signs of past and present life on Mars.

The arid and varied Moroccan landscape provides plenty of opportunities for scientists to test the limits of their instruments. IRSPS’s Ibn Battuta Centre is in charge of the test sites, in cooperation with the Université Cadi Ayyad of Marrakech. One of the first tests scheduled this year will be for the laser altimeter for the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (EDM).

“The experiment will consist of a platform with a sort of radar to measure the reflectance of the surface,” says Ori. “The instrument will be kept at about 20 to 30 meters from the ground with some balloons, but anchored to the ground.”

The scientists are planning to perform these tests for several types of surfaces that have close similarities to the Martian landscape. To aid these tests, the scientists will create super-resolution Digital Elevation Models of 5 or 6 different areas, using stereo images shot from an unmanned helicopter. The images will be quite detailed, with a resolution of 3 to 30 centimeters per pixel – slightly better than the 25 to 50 centimeters per pixel resolution of the HiRISE camera now on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The unmanned helicopter also will be used to simulate landing a spacecraft on the surface of Mars, flying at 3,000 meters and descending at several tens of meters per second.

In addition, the 2018 ExoMars rover drill will be brought to the different field sites.

“We will test the equipment in the field and also the science that can be investigated,” says Ori. “The driller will collect samples up to 2 meters of depth and will be the first samples from the Martian subsurface.”

One planned drill test site, near the town of Ouarzazate, once was an ancient lagoon. Evidence of the lagoon is provided by 600-million-year old stromatolite fossils, free-standing pillars of rock that had been constructed by microbes in their watery environment. Similar stromatolites can be found being made today at Shark Bay in Australia and other estuaries and ponds around the globe, and the microbes that build them are thought to represent some of the most ancient life on Earth. Although stromatolites have not been found on Mars, evidence suggests ancient Mars was covered by oceans and had all the conditions thought to be necessary for such microbial life to thrive.

Read full article here.

Alert readers will have noticed that name of the famous Ibn Battuta in the extract above. So we looked into it and found... The main aim of the Ibn Battuta Centre for Exploration and Field Activities is to support the exploration of Mars and other planets, and to provide opportunities for scientists and the public for experiencing the exploration on Earth and in the Solar System.

The Ibn Battuta Centre for Exploration and Field Activities was established in 2006 by the International Research School of Planetary Sciences (Pescara, Italy) to prepare and execute tests of rovers, landing systems, instruments and operations related to the exploration of Mars and the Moon. The Centre has a major partner, the Universite Cadi Ayyad of Marrakech (Morocco) where it is located.

Although the main aim of the Ibn Battuta Centre is to develop tests for the Martian and planetary exploration, it is also organising several activities such as field courses for students and professionals, summer schools, field trips and expeditions. These activities are linked to the research on terrestrial analogues of Mars and to the geological sciences. The Centre is strongly based on field activity and devoted to the scientific studies and applications in planetology and geology.

The Centre is named after the famous Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta (born in Tangier on 24th February 1304 – 703 Hijra) who explored a large part of Northern Africa and Asia. During his travels Ibn Battuta visited almost the entire Muslim world and travelled more than 120,000 kilometres.

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