What is the weather like on Mars? What climatic conditions would humans be exposed to in a future exploration of the red planet? The Mars Rover Mission Mars 2020 — with technology from Thuringia, among others — is intended to clarify this. Thermal sensors from the Leibniz IPHT in Jena are on board the Mars Rover Perseverance, whose launch has been scheduled by the American space agency NASA for 30 July at 1:50 P.M. Central European Summer Time. They measure the surface temperature without contact and provide a key to a better understanding of the planet. 

From the neck of the Mars rover, they measure the planet. The thermal sensors from Leibniz IPHT are part of the MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer) instrument package designed by a research team from the Spanish space agency INTA. It provides information about the weather — including wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity — and measures the quantity and size of dust particles in the Martian atmosphere. It plays a key role in preparing for human exploration of the planet, according to NASA, which also wants to use the rover to test methods for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and to search for other resources such as water under the surface.

Using data on the geology and climate of Mars, scientists are looking for signs of earlier life on the surface. They want to better understand what the planet looked like in the past and why Earth and Mars — which evolved from the same primordial material — developed so differently.

Technology proven in space for decades

The thermal sensors from Leibniz IPHT measure the downward and upward thermal infrared radiation as well as the surface temperature. The photonic sensors incorporate technology that has been proven in space for decades. When Perseverance lands at the Jezero Crater in the northern hemisphere in February 2021 as planned, the third mission from Jena will already be starting work on the planet. Sensors from the Leibniz IPHT are also installed in the Rover Curiosity, which has been in operation on Mars since 2012, and in the InSight lander, which will be launched in November 2018.

“A space mission is something special every time,” reports Dr. Gabriel Zieger, who heads the Thermal Sensors working group at Leibniz IPHT. “And it is a new challenge every time. Because you only get one try: Once the mission has started, the sensors must work. We have no way to readjust anything.” Because the Jena sensors reliably withstand the high demands on stability, robustness and accuracy, the Leibniz-IPHT has been working regularly with DLR and NASA in the field of space research since the European Rosetta mission launched in 2004.

In October 2018, another project was successfully completed with the deployment of the MASCOT landing device on the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. Shortly afterwards, BepiColombo launched Europe’s first mission to Mercury, also with specially designed thermal sensors from Jena on board. “The infrared sensors have been further developed and optimized by scientists at our institute over many years, so that today they are among the best in the world,” says Prof. Jürgen Popp, scientific director of the Leibniz-IPHT. Requests for future space missions, reports Gabriel Zieger, have already been received.

Thermal Sensor from Leibniz IPHT. Three of these sensors are in use on the NASA mission Mars 2020.Photo: Sven Döring/ Leibniz-IPHT

Thermal Sensor from Leibniz IPHT. Three of these sensors are in use on the NASA mission Mars 2020.Photo: Sven Döring/ Leibniz-IPHT