UK Space Agency's technology leads search for life on Mars

Britain's new space agency is to spearhead a search for life on Mars, it was announced yesterday.

The UK Space Agency is providing £10.5m to develop life-seeking instruments for an advanced Martian rover. ExoMars is due to land on the Red Planet in 2018 as part of a joint European and US mission.

The robot vehicle will carry sophisticated technology, much of it developed in the UK, designed to look for signs of past or present life.

Unlike previous rovers, ExoMars will carry a ground-penetrating radar capable of peering under the Martian surface at promising locations.

A drill will enable it to extract samples from a depth of up to 2m to analyse soil for the presence of biological organic compounds using an on-board laboratory.

British teams from the universities of Leicester and Cranfield, and Imperial College London, are leading the development of the rover's key life-detecting instrument. The life marker chip will use technology borrowed from diagnostic medicine to identify the presence of biological organic compounds in the Martian soil.

British researchers from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, and the University of Aberystwyth, Wales, are leading the development of the rover's panoramic camera – the rover's eyes.

It will help geologists to understand the planet's history and structure. Other UK scientists have a major role in the design of two instruments, the raman laser spectrometer and X-ray diffractometer. Both will analyse chemical composition.

David Willetts, the Universities and Science minister said: "It's exciting to see UK engineers working on the most ambitious Mars mission ever."

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