Was there ever – or is there still – life on Mars? Nasa's robotic rover, Curiosity, landed on the red planet in August of 2012 in order to answer that question. A giant leap has already been made with the discovery of traces of water. Curiosity was ultimately unable to take water samples from these wet areas for fear of destroying any life that may exist there. It ran the risk of contaminating the surface of Mars with terrestrial microbes that it may have brought with it.
The exploration rover on the next mission to Mars, ExoMars 2020, will be sterilized. This robot, a veritable laboratory on wheels, will be launched in August of 2020 on a Proton rocket. It will be fitted with a drill for taking samples from deep under the surface, far from the cosmic rays and oxidation that destroy organic matter.
Air Liquide has been tasked with installing the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) chromatograph's capillary tubes, which will be used to separate Martian molecules before they are analyzed by Curiosity's instruments. It is our unique micro-brazing and micro- soldering expertise, developed on our site on Sassenage (France), that enabled us to be part of the Curiosity project. In particular, a technique for crimping the capillary tubes before brazing was developed to meet the requirements of the space industry. Our technician, Dominique Chazot, assembled the final parts of the chromatograph on NASA's site in Washington. This required extraordinarily fine solders, with unparalleled precision.
Years after landing on Mars, Curiosity is still operational. When you bear in mind that the SAM chromatograph was only supposed to carry out analyses for a period of two years, this confirms our expertise.
The prototype, the qualification model,and the flight chromatograph
brazes per model
the diameter of the tubes to be soldered
The ExoMars program will be launched in 2020 to look for other traces of life on Mars.
As with Curiosity, Air Liquide has been tasked with assembling the capillary tubes for the chromatograph in the mission's main instrument, the MOMA (Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer), which was developed by LISA (Inter-University Laboratory for Atmospheric Systems) to detect biological activity. This work, carried out by our technician in an ISO5 clean room, is all the more painstaking because the MOMA must be sterile in order to avoid contaminating any potential life on the planet.
As part of the ExoMars project, our team's skills were also called on for other parts of the robot: Bistable On/Off valves, real switches between the chromatograph's different columns, a storage tank, and micro-regulation valves to manage the helium (the gas used by the chromatograph), heated tubes to maintain samples at the correct temperature, derivatization cells containing the products required for the analyses, and more... As well as the technological challenges, our teams were able to adapt the technologies and processes to meet the constraints of sterility and decontamination. It is a huge challenge and we are all passionate about it
ExoMars is looking for biological markers on Mars. Methane in particular would be a sign of bacterial activity. On Earth, this gas is produced and given out by living things. It could, therefore, reveal the presence of Martian microbes.
10-8 Ncm3/s: Regulation valves with unparalleled leak-tightness. It is out of the question to allow the slightest molecule to escape! Weighing just a matter of grams, they were a real miniaturization challenge.
8 cm: The diameter required for the storage sphere to contain sufficient helium to conduct analyses for the duration of the ExoMars program. The sphere was made from titanium, making it both reliable and lightweight: a necessity for space applications!