This Mini-Mars Simulates the Martian Dust Storms Threatening the Curiosity Rover

Researchers want to test the tools we'll one day take to explore the Red Planet.

Mar 26 2014, 2:57pm
Image: Centro de Astrobiologia

The people who brought us a simulation of Europa’s crust have now created a simulation of Mars—the only difference is, they’re doing it specifically to test tools that we’ll one day send there to explore the planet.

While going to Jupiter’s moon Europa is something of a pipe dream at the moment, going to Mars is a very real possibility, but we want to make sure whatever we send there (including, maybe, humans) is actually going to work. To test it out, researchers at Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia have created a miniature vacuum chamber, called MARTE, that can reproduce Mars’ temperature, pressure, gas composition, and radiation levels in order to test instruments in as close to real-life conditions as possible. 

In fact, the team, headed by Jesus Sobrado, is even working on recreating Martian dust. In the past, Martian soil has been known to clog some of NASA’s instruments, so that’s a particularly important thing to be able to test. 

“The day-by-day coating of the optical rover’s instruments on Mars by the atmospheric dust is one of the most intricate technological problems limiting the lifetime of many missions. One of the main advantages of this machine over any other is the ability to provide a simulation system with the possibility of spreading dust in vacuum conditions,” Sobrado wrote in a paper published in Review of Scientific Instruments.

Here's what the thing looks like. Image: Centro de Astrobiologia

Though planet simulations have been done before, most previous attempts at recreating Mars (or the moon, or some other place) have only focused on one aspect of the environment, such as radiation, or wind conditions on a planet. The Centro de Astrobiologia chamber is designed to be adaptable to test whatever instruments scientists are dreaming of sending up there.

“The objective of this communication is to present a new and versatile Mars simulation chamber designed primarily to test some of the environmental sensors of the meteorological station of the Mars Science Laboratory onboard the rover Curiosity, in real working conditions,” Sobrado wrote. “There are several advantages and differences of MARTE, with respect to other simulation planetary systems: the versatility for testing different instruments or samples, the treatment of the atmospheric gases, and the possibility to include Martian dust. MARTE has been conceived in a modular concept and it is possible to study the behavior of instrumentation and samples of different nature and sizes.”

There is one aspect of Mars that the team hasn’t yet been able to mimic: Gravity. In order to test that out, we’ll just have to go there … or maybe put the chamber aboard the Vomit Comet.