Dr Christian Schröder is one of five ‘visiting researchers’, joining five scientists from Europe, Russia and Canada who will play a leading role in commanding the Euro-Russian rover ExoMars Rosalind Franklin when it launches. in September 2022.
Once the rover lands at the selected Oxia Planum site on Mars in June 2023, the machine will spend a minimum of 211 “sols” (Martian days), equivalent to 230 Earth days, searching for organic carbon molecules that could tell us if there has never been life on the planet.
The appointment comes months after the launch of the Scottish Space Strategy, which aims to create 20,000 jobs in the sector by 2030. The strategy sets out plans to develop a network of satellite launch sites, pursue green technologies and build on existing strengths in data analysis. and research.
Dr Schröder was part of the team that operated NASA’s twin Mars exploration rovers, Sprit and Opportunity, from 2003 to 2019. The mission established the past presence of liquid water on the Martian surface – the condition most important prerequisite for life.
He said: “Over the past two decades, we’ve learned that there is a lot of liquid water on Mars over 3.5 billion years ago. At that time, Earth and Mars were very similar, and life was already well established on Earth.
“So it’s conceivable that there was also life on Mars. But even if we find the right signs, was this life independent of life on Earth? Or was it the result of an exchange of meteorites between Earth and Mars?
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“If it were independent – and life was born twice in our solar system – then the universe could be teeming with life. Otherwise, it would be less likely.
Lecturer in biological and environmental sciences, Dr Schröder’s expertise covers Earth sciences and planetary exploration. He is particularly interested in the interaction between iron minerals and carbon molecules, which can give an indication of what kind of life there might have been.
Once Rosalind Franklin lands, Dr Schröder will be based at the rover’s operations control center in Turin, Italy, where the team will guide the rover across the surface of Mars.
The Rosalind Franklin rover is the first to carry a drill long enough to explore molecules up to 2m below the surface, where they would be shielded from harsh radiation on the planet’s surface.
The rover carries nine scientific instruments to locate the best drill sites and analyze the recovered samples. Dr Schröder will be part of the team that operates the rover’s eyes – the panoramic camera, or PanCam – and the Raman laser spectrometer, which identifies minerals and carbon in drill core.
He said: “This mission has been in the works for a long time and it will be great to see it finally take off, and important to be in a leading role when it does.”
While at Mainz University in the early 2000s, Dr Schröder helped develop the miniaturized Mössbauer spectrometer, MIMOS II, for NASA missions. He joined the University of Stirling in 2013.