Polish Hardware on Mars
September 28, 2012
NASA’s Curiosity rover, which successfully landed on Mars Aug. 6, is fitted with infrared detectors developed and manufactured by Poland’s Vigo System company. The Curiosity mission was one of the most important NASA projects in recent years.
Curiosity, which weighs almost a ton, touched down on the surface of Mars in an area around Gale Crater and immediately sent the first photographs of its surroundings. The photos showed the surface of the crater and a high mountain inside it, called Aeolis Mons.
Gale Crater is 154 km in diameter and believed to be about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years old. The crater has a complicated geological structure and is named after Walter Frederick Gale, an Australian amateur astronomer who observed Mars in the late 19th century. The crater is located near the equator of Mars. Scientists are pinning great hopes on a closer examination by Curiosity of Aeolis Mons, which is 5.5 km high. The mountain has a layered structure and at its base are probably sedimentary rocks from the early history of Mars, which could indicate that there was once water, and perhaps life, on the planet. The rover also sent to Earth a video recording the last two-and-a-half minutes of its landing.
The first pictures are not too good because they were taken by small cameras placed low under the chassis, and by a camera placed at the end of an automatic jib. However, this jib is still in a stowed position and the camera lens is obscured by a transparent cover.
The Curiosity probe has successfully raised a high mast on which several high-resolution cameras are mounted for navigation in the field.
The mission of the rover, whose official name is Mars Science Laboratory, is the most ambitious research project involving the Red Planet. The project has claimed $2.5 billion in spending. The rover is equipped with the most modern research and analysis devices, including a laser for spectral analysis of more distant rocks.
The mission is expected to last at least two years, but scientists expect that Curiosity will operate for up to 10 years.
Life on Mars? The rover is powered by a plutonium battery that makes it independent of solar energy. According to experts, the battery will last a long time—longer than the mechanical parts of the rover.
Experts believe that the landing of the largest spacecraft in history on Mars is an important step in the search for signs of life on that planet. NASA considers the landing a triumph, and Polish researchers are highlighting their contribution to one of the instruments of the probe.
“The mission of the Curiosity rover is important for scientific and technological reasons,” said Karol Seweryn, Ph.D., at the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. “It is important for the next stage of the search for potential signs, for example, in the form of carbon compounds, that life could have existed on Mars in the past. I would also emphasize the technological issues: the demonstration of a safe, autonomous landing of such a large spacecraft on another planet.”
While the Polish space research center did not take direct part in the American project, it did have a role in previous missions, in particular in the construction of one of the spectrometers for the European Mars Express probe, which is still in orbit around Mars, and which provided support for the Curiosity landing process, passing the signal from the lander to Earth.
Hi-tech. Curiosity carried on board various scientific instruments, including sensitive spectrophotometers ordered by NASA and supplied by the Polish company Vigo System from Ożarów Mazowiecki near Warsaw. Spectrophotometers are analytical instruments that measure the intensity of light.
“[Chemical] composition analysis requires the use of sensitive infrared detectors, to make it possible to examine the absorption spectrum of the analyzed sample in order to determine what chemicals are present in a mixture of gases,” said Mirosław Grudzień, CEO of Vigo System.
Vigo System is one of the most innovative companies in Poland, according to a ranking list drawn up annually by the Polish Academy of Sciences. The company was founded more than 25 years ago by experts from Warsaw’s Military University of Technology, one of the most renowned technical universities in Poland, and from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Plasma Physics. Today, scientists and businessmen cite Vigo System as a model example of how to successfully combine science with business.
In 1996, the company received a U.S. award for the best product placed on the international market in the field of photonics. Vigo System is the world’s only producer of certain types of advanced infrared detectors. The company is an official NASA supplier.