With NOMAD on board ExoMars
10/11/16

Arnaud Stiepen has adjusted his watch to Martian time. In fact, he has become a specialist in the analysis of atmospheric phenomena on Mars. When the European probe ExoMars lands on the red planet, new data will become available and will need to be analysed. He developed his expertise at the University of Colorado where he had the opportunity to work on data provided by the American probe MAVEN. One of his key interests will be in diffuse aurora and the evolution of the Martian atmosphere which would be key to any hope of finding life on the planet. 

On October 19th, Europe will land on Mars. Arnaud Stiepen, a postdoctoral researcher at the LPAP (Laboratory of Planetary and Atmospheric Physics) in the STAR Institute (Space sciences, Technologies and Astrophysics Research) of the University of Liege, has been looking forward to this moment with a great deal of interest. Indeed, on that date, the Schiaparelli robot, alias EDM (Entry descent & landing Demonstrator Module) is expected to land on the Red Planet. It will be released by the Russo-European probe ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars), three days before it is placed in orbit around Mars. If it arrives intact, this technological lander, which was developed in Italy by Thales Alenia Space, will become the third probe to land on the Red Planet thanks to a scientific partnership with Roscosmos. Russia was the first country to achieve this feat with Mars-3 (December 2nd 1971). The United States had a scientific laboratory on Mars with the Viking robot (July 1st 1976).

Sonde MAVEN Exomars

On the same day - and this event will be closely followed by Arnaud Stiepen – the orbital platform TGO (Trace Gas Orbiter) which weighs 3.73 tonnes, will become a satellite of Mars in an extremely elliptical orbit between 300 and 95.850 km around the Red Planet. It will relay the signals from Schiaparelli during its descent and later on from the surface of Mars. It will then place itself in a circular orbit at around 400 km in order to fulfil a scientific mission which has been planned for 2022. On board, a Belgian instrument will represent the ESA (European Space Agency): it is the triple spectrometer NOMAD (Nadir & Occultation for Mars Discovery) created by BIRA-IASB (Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy) with OIP Sensor Systems (Oudenaerde) and Amos (Liege), and tested at the CSL (Liege Space Centre/ University of Liege). This instrument will show what the Martian atmosphere is composed of, even at low concentrations. 

The researchers at the LPAP are interested in studying the data from NOMAD in order to get a better understanding of the Martian atmosphere. 

The data lessons of MAVEN

In the LPAP, Arnaud Stiepen is a specialist in the atmospheres of Mars and Venus and the auroral phenomena they produce. Recently, he participated in the use of observations made by an instrument on board MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere & Volatile Evolution), a NASA probe which has been travelling around the Red Planet since September 21st 2014. For his post-doctorate, this researcher from Liege spent a year – from September 2014 to September 2015 – at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In the context of a long collaboration which developed thanks to the friendly relationship between the LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric & Space Physics) in Boulder and the LPAP of the University of Liege. 

“I spent a very productive year at Boulder from a research point of view. The University of Colorado is very well funded, which contributes to the responsiveness of its researchers. At no time did I feel scientifically inferior to them. Our training is of a very high standard. Why else would our American colleagues call upon our expertise? The quality of our research enables us to reach the same high standards with less funding than laboratories in America are used to”. Thanks to the fact that he had access to observations made by the spectrometer from the University of Colorado on board NASA’s MAVEN probe, he was able to confirm the baffling presence of “diffuse” auroras in the atmosphere of the Red Planet (see article: “Martian auroras uncovered”). 

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