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Malaga makes its mark on Mars mission

Professor Javier Laserna with the simulator at the UMA Laserlab.
Professor Javier Laserna with the simulator at the UMA Laserlab. / MIGUE FERNÁNDEZ
  • NASA's Perseverance rover landing on the red planet places the city's university among the elite of space research

The landing of the NASA rover Perseverance on Mars was watched with bated breath by a team of researchers based in Malaga.

The scientists from the UMA Laserlab, the laser laboratory of the University of Malaga, led by Professor Javier Laserna, are among researchers all over the world taking part in this new NASA mission to the red planet.

The Laserlab is home to an instrument known as a Supercam, which will enable the experts to examine rocks and minerals on the surface of Mars.

Sound waves produced by the impact with rocks will be transmitted to Earth and reproduced in a chamber that simulates the temperature, pressure and solar radiation on Mars.

The simulation chamber in Malaga is 12 metres in length, two metres in diameter and weighs 20 tonnes.

Nerves

"They were very intense minutes of great anxiety," acknowledged the UMA researcher minutes after the spacecraft landed and emitted its first signals.

“During the seven minutes that the landing operations last, as the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere, communication is lost, until the rover has landed on the surface.

“You have to remember that half of the missions that NASA has sent to Mars have failed for different reasons," said Laserna.

The UMA Laserlab team could not meet to follow the landing live. Coronavirus crisis and the curfew forced them to follow the manoeuvres - broadcast live by NASA on YouTube - from their homes.

Intellectual challenge

Laserna said participating in this mission “is an intellectual challenge of the first magnitude. There are great researchers, many very young. There are big problems to solve. And for us, interpreting the data in our Martian atmosphere simulator is a source of pride and encouragement."

Javier Laserna explains that the calibration card that has been mounted on the Perseverance (which verifies the results of the different instruments) bears the names of the scientists who have participated in that part of the mission: “Our name, and that of Malaga is already on Mars.”

The Mars 2020 mission will occupy UMA Laserlab researchers for several years.

The rover will send a lot of data during its mission. Simulating them here and analysing them by reproducing the conditions on Mars will take a long time,” said the researcher.

Meanwhile, the laboratory will continue to develop tools to detect organic matter on Mars or other celestial bodies, such as the Moon or asteroids stressed Laserna.