Mars can now be accurately simulated on Earth, thanks to MARTE, a new martian simulator. The device will be used to test spacecraft and equipment before they are sent to the martian surface.
Atmospheric conditions on the red planet can be simulated, including the vicious wind storms that are a defining feature of the landscape of Mars. To do this, an object to be tested is placed on a copper base, measuring eight square inches in area.
MARTE uses a pair of sieves in the vacuum chamber, each just 1/400th of an inch across - about the same as a human hair. Dust and particles are released through these vents as the opening shakes, simulating natural sand storms.
"We're simulating the effect of the Martian dust - one of the primary problems for planetary exploration - to gain a better understanding of how instruments behave when covered in dust," Jesus Sobrado, technical development manager of the project, said.
Dust on Mars contains tiny particles called silicates that can turn into dangerous substances after being inhaled. These particles are so small, they may be able to leak through airlock systems, meaning astronauts on the surface of Mars may not be safe from their effect.
Tiny particles in martian winds also play havoc with electronic systems. The red color of Mars comes from iron oxide, or rust, that makes up about one-quarter of the crust of that planet. Tiny particles of iron oxide become magnetized, and they cling to delicate surfaces on probes and observatories on the planet.
MARTE is able to simulate an atmosphere just one percent as dense as that on Earth, composed largely of carbon dioxide. Temperatures in the simulator can far exceed conditions on Mars. At the poles, temperatures on the red planet go down to -225 Fahrenheit, but conditions are never hotter than at the Martian equator, which does not exceed room temperature.
"The device (or sample) under study can be irradiated by an ultraviolet source and its temperature can be controlled in the range from [-265 to 300 degrees F]. As an important improvement with respect to other simulation chambers, the atmospheric gas into the experimental chamber is cooled at the walls by the use of liquid-nitrogen heat exchangers," engineers wrote in the article accompanying the development of MARTE.
Researchers from the Centro de Astrobiología, and Instituto de Ciencias de Materials de Madrid in Spain designed and built the machine.
InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will be the first experiment to be tested on the new bed. That equipment is due to be launched to Mars in March 2016.
Development of the MARTE martian simulator was profiled in the journal Review of Scientific Instruments.