Utah Science
6:24 pm
Fri January 17, 2014

Space Mission Uses Utah Technology To Detect Life On Mars

An upcoming mission to Mars will have the help of one Utah company that will be providing some of the technology to find chemical evidence of life beneath the iron oxide that gives the “Red Planet” its nickname.

ExoMars is scheduled to launch in 2018.
Credit NASA.gov

Wasatch Photonics makes high-tech refraction gratings and spectrometers that will be used by the ExoMars Mission. Developed by the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency, ExoMars is an astrobiological mission to find biosignatures of life.

Wasatch Photonics C.E.O. Gerald Heidt explains.

“They’re looking for, possibly, signs of past or present life, organic material and water,” said Heidt. “If they want to do manned missions to Mars, which they talk about, they need to get more information and that’s what’s happening in these next steps.”

Heidt said it’s not yet practical to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. So, with the help of his company’s technology, ExoMars will essentially be sending a fully working laboratory to the Red Planet.

Using a technology called Raman Spectroscopy, a sample collected from below Mars’ surface is illuminated with a laser beam. The light from the laser excites the molecules in the sample, causing them to emit photons and generate light.

“Each element will emit a variety of different wavelengths or colors of light. This then will go through the grating and it will separate those different colors of light and land on a detector. Depending on what light is coming through and the amplitude, it will tell you what elements make up that material. It’s almost like the light that comes off of these molecules is the fingerprint of the molecule,” Heidt said.

Scientists hope the light signatures detected will expand our planet’s understanding of Mars and the universe. ExoMars is scheduled to launch in 2018.