Its readings also identify challenges for future human missions.
A “mini” meteorological network on Mars is operating under extreme conditions to answer these questions: Can we find traces of life on the red planet? What challenges will future manned missions face?
Knowing the weather on Mars not only informs scientists of phenomena on the red planet, but being able to study it also provides data to prepare humanity for its next leap into space.
On Earth, a meteorological network is indispensable for determining water needs, measuring air quality, and using renewable energies, as well as studying climate change.
All this provides information to understand the atmospheric conditions that make life as we know it today possible.
However, installing a similar network on another planet entails various technological challenges in obtaining, reading, and interpreting data from an extraterrestrial environment.
Various space agencies and research centers have sent technology to Mars to study the planet’s atmosphere.
“The Martian atmosphere provides a model of the planet in a certain way, since it’s the only place where specific environmental actions can be identified,” says José Antonio Rodríguez Manfredi, principal researcher for the MEDA instrument on the Perseverance rover, in an interview with Tec Review.
On Mars, there are currently three stations for measuring atmospheric data that will help explain phenomena such as dust, humidity, and temperature for future manned missions, as well as investigate the existence of past life.
The fourth planet in the solar system is one of the most studied, as rovers have been sent there to study its geological and atmospheric properties and the existence of microbial life.
Mars is cold, rocky, and dry. It has a thin atmosphere composed mainly of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon gases. Due to this thin atmosphere, the Sun’s heat escapes easily.
According to NASA data, the temperature on Mars can be as high as 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), compared to Earth, which remains at 15 degrees Celsius on average.
At the other extreme, it can get as low as -225 degrees Fahrenheit (-153 degrees Celsius). Humans can withstand temperatures as low as -20°. On our planet, the temperature in Antarctica is -93°.
What’s more, it has winds strong enough to cause dust storms that cover the planet for months. Because of this peculiarity, it is classified as a desert world.
“Studying the atmosphere will be important for understanding phenomena such as what water cycles are like, how steam is mobilized, or what temperature cycles are like,” explains Rodríguez Manfredi, a telecommunications engineer.
There are only three stations on the red planet at the moment: REMS on Curiosity, Twins on InSight, and MEDA on Perseverance.
“It’s a mini meteorological network, but at least it’s a network that gives us information from three different points on the planet. That’s especially important for developing the data in the models and trying to understand what implications they can have or could have had for life,” explains Antonio Rodríguez Manfredi.
This consists of a set of instruments that record surface air temperature, pressure, humidity, soil temperature, wind speed and direction, and ultraviolet radiation.
Its specific purpose is to investigate processes on the surface and how these can be harmful to life, e.g. the levels of radiation that reach the planet.
Curiosity landed at Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012.
This is a tool that includes statistics on temperature, wind, and air pressure.
Through its Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem (APSS), it provides climate information 24 hours a day (sent daily to Earth).
Obstacles can be identified with information obtained from readings via the main rover instruments, landing module seismometers, and the heat flow probe.
InSight is the first mission to explore the deep interior of Mars, landing on November 26, 2018, in Elysium Planitia, the second largest volcanic region.
It investigates processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system more than four billion years ago.
MEDA is a new generation of environmental instruments.
It is one of seven instruments the rover carries on board to conduct its exploration of Mars.
The objectives of the mission, as a continuation of the previous ones, include finding clues to possible traces of life that may have arisen on the planet.
To do so, it landed in Jezero Crater, an environment where it is more likely to find traces of past life.
In particular, it seeks to study how the red planet’s climate has evolved.
“It’s the instrument responsible for the environmental study and characterization of Martian weather, of its meteorological conditions. This means we hope to not only characterize the geological environment but also begin to look for traces of life that might have arisen on the planet 3.8 to 4 billion years ago,” says Rodríguez Manfredi, who is also a researcher at the Spanish Astrobiology Center.
On Earth, for example, weather models use data from satellites and ground stations consisting primarily of a series of instruments to measure and record different variables.
These are mainly composed of sensors that detect data from the outside, a console responsible for recording the information, and software responsible for translating the data into graphs.
Each of these stations are dispersed across a region at strategic locations to form a network.