ExoMars heads to Iceland for eye-test

PanCam during a recent field test in Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire, where the team were testing its 3D measurement capabilities.

PanCam during a recent field test in Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire, where the team were testing its 3D measurement capabilities.

31 July 2017

Scientists from Aberystwyth University and the University of St Andrews are heading out to Iceland this week as work continues to develop the data processing tools for the camera system that will feature on the European Space Agency’s 2020 mission to Mars.

The PanCam instrument, which is under development by a team led by UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, will be the eyes of the ExoMars Rover and the images it produces will be key to the success of the mission.

Dr Matt Gunn and colleagues from the Institute of Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science at Aberystwyth are part of an international team developing and testing the camera’s data processing pipelines to enable the camera to capture accurate colour images and 3D measurements of geological features on Mars.

Inspired by stained glass technology used in medieval cathedrals, Dr Gunn’s team has built a colour calibration target that will be retain the vibrancy of its coloured glass discs despite the very high levels of ultra-violet radiation on the planet.

The Aberystwyth team has also developed a Rover Inspection Mirror that will enable PanCam to capture “selfies” of the rover to check itself for damage or problems during the mission.

Dr Gunn has recently returned from a field test in Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire, where the team were testing PanCam’s 3D measurement capabilities.

Developed to enable geologists to remotely identify rock formations that might indicate the previous existence of liquid water, Dr Gunn has been working on calibration and processing pipeline used to convert the raw images into accurate full colour images of the rocks.

The Iceland mission will see the team test how PanCam records colours using its advanced multispectral technology.

Whilst human vision sees images using three colours - red, green and blue - PanCam’s cameras are able to ‘see’ in 22 different colours, including infra-red, which is invisible to the human eye.

Working on Iceland’s northern coast, Dr Gunn and colleagues will test the highly sensitive camera’s ability to register subtle colour differences in a landscape that is largely devoid of green plants.

Dr Gunn said: “Iceland has been chosen for this work as we needed an environment that was not dominated by green plants full of chlorophyll, and had the right type of rock. The camera is highly sensitive as the scientists who work with these images will be looking for very subtle changes in colour. These images are not ordinary colour photographs; they will be used to work out the different types of rocks on Mars. It is known that some rocks form in wet environments, so accurately interpreting the images may help mission scientists to pinpoint where to look for possible signs of life.”  

This will be the second time PanCam has been tested in Iceland. Further tests are scheduled for the next couple of years to other remote locations which may include Utah in the USA and the Atacama Desert in south America.

Dr Gunn and colleagues at Aberystwyth University are working closely with researchers at University College London, University of St Andrews and Imperial College London as well as a number of international collaborators.

Professor Andrew Coates of UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, lead investigator for PanCam on the ExoMars 2020 rover, said: “Field trials like this are an important part of preparing the team for science and operations on Mars. The Aberystwyth University PanCam Emulator is a key simulation of the real instrument we are building. We can’t wait to see the data from the trials, and from PanCam on Mars after the rover lands in 2021”.

The work on PanCam by Dr Gunn and colleagues at St Andrews is funded by the UK Space Agency.