Finmeccanica technology to help tease out Martian secrets
Following the Mars Express mission in 2003, Europe will soon be returning to the red planet
with the ExoMars mission in 2016. Supporting the adventure is Finmeccanica, through its
companies Selex ES, Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space. The ExoMars programme, a
collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos, with the
fundamental contribution of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) - that also developed with the
National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) the INRRI instrument (INstrument for landing-
Roving laser Retroreflector Investigations - has a number of scientific objectives including the
search for alien life, past or present. Other goals include understanding the geochemical
composition of the planet, learning more about the planet’s environment and geology and
identifying potential risk factors for future manned missions.
The programme is divided into two missions. In 2016, the first mission will see the Trace Gas
Orbiter (TGO) module enter into orbit around Mars to investigate the presence of methane
and other gases present in the atmosphere as possible signs of alien life. Just prior to
reaching orbit, the spacecraft will release an Entry and Descent demonstrator Module (EDM),
containing a weather station and other instruments. A second mission, following in 2018,
aims to land a vehicle on Mars which will be able to explore the planet’s surface performing
research including soil analysis. The 2018 mission will consist of a carrier module and a
descent module, the latter of which will include a landing platform housing the Mars Rover.
Thales Alenia Space Italy has been awarded the leadership role on both missions by the
ESA and will take overall responsibility for all mission equipment. For ExoMars 2016, Thales
Alenia Space has built the EDM module in its Turin facility and the TGO orbiter at its site in
Cannes. For the 2018 mission, Thales Alenia Space Italy is in charge of developing the
navigation and guidance system for the carrier module and descent module, as well as
designing the rover system and building an Analytical Laboratory (ALD), to be integrated
onto the rover.
Selex ES will also have technology on-board the 2016 mission having supplied photovoltaic
power generators, the units that will process and distribute electric power throughout the
satellite (the PCU – Power Conditioning Unit - and PCDU – Power Control and Distribution
Unit) and two electric power distribution boards for the EDM module’s CTPU (Central
Terminal and Power Unit). All these electronics equipments are from the company’s
Nerviano site. From the company’s Campi Bisenzio facility, Selex ES has supplied the star
trackers (AA-STR) for the Trace Gas Orbiter and the core of the CASSIS optronic
observation system. For the 2018 mission, Selex ES’s Nerviano site will provide the
photovoltaic assemblies which will power the spacecraft and rover and will produce the
special drill, funded by ASI, which will, for the first time, dig down into the Martian surface to
a depth that could reveal past or current signs of life. Inside the drill will be Selex ES’s
MA_MISS spectrometer (Mars Multispectral Imager for Subsurface Studies) from the
company’s Campi Bisenzo site, which will analyse the geological and biological properties of
the soil under the surface of Mars.
Finally, Telespazio, via its subsidiary Telespazio VEGA Deutschland, will develop the
ExoMars Mission Control System (MCS). The MCS will monitor and control the TGO,
allowing mission operation teams to manage the system throughout the life of the mission.
The drill that will search for life on Mars
The operational scenario of the ExoMars mission provides for the acquisition of Martian soil samples to a depth of 2 metres and their on-board analysis through special spectrometric techniques in both the visible and infrared fields. The ExpoMars mission will last for over 200 days during which the collection of around 20 rock samples is expected.
Selex ES is responsible for the development, production and integration of the tool – a drill - that will carry out this sampling”. The drill can gather sample material that will then be collected in a separate container; it will then be taken into the Rover’s analytical laboratory where it will be examined in detail by special scientific instruments.
The ExpoMars drill is a real technological gem; to reach the required drilling capacity of up to two metres in depth - even higher than that expected of the American Drill of the InSight Mars mission - the drill is designed on a modular technology that uses a drill tool and three extension rods, by a rotary and translation action.
In its delicate task of drilling and collecting samples from the ground, the drill will be assisted by another Selex ES tool, the Ma_Miss (Mars Multispectral Imager for Subsurface Studies), a spectrometer operating in the visible to near infrared band which, when inserted into the drill, will provide scientists with information about the environment from which samples will be taken.
It is also thanks to this technological capability to meet wide-ranging challenges that Selex ES is now a world leader in robotic drilling for planetary exploration while consolidating its leading role in Europe for spectrometric instruments.
The Selex ES systems for drilling and managing the samples taken are also present on the Rosetta mission, where, for the first time in November 2014, a space drill operated on a comet. In this case the drill, called SD2 (Sampler Drill & Distribution) – made by Selex ES with financial backing from ASI (Italian Space Agency) under the scientific responsibility of Politecnico di Milano (Milan Polytechnic) – was the first space drill ever flown on an interplanetary probe. Selex ES is also working on a prototype drill able to penetrate the lunar soil. The drill could be already deployed during the Luna27 Mission which ESA and Roscosmos Russian Federal Space agency) will launch in 2020 to search for water onto the Earth satellite.