Finding life on Mars

Looking for signs of extra-terrestrial life has long been a plot for many blockbuster movies. But despite dozens of missions to Mars there has been no proof that life, past or present, exists beyond Earth. Recent research, however, has concluded that ancient Mars used to be significantly wetter and warmer than we first thought and could even now be a home for microbial life. One of our Halma companies – Labsphere - has played a vital role in enabling the latest search for life on Mars.

 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On 18 February 2021, NASA’s latest mission robot landed on Mars - The Perseverance Rover. With 29 cameras onboard acting as its eyes, it is the best equipped robot yet to look for life on Mars. There are cameras that helped it look for a landing spot, cameras that checked the parachute, and cameras that will help it navigate safely across the surface, all providing invaluable data back to base.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS


However, it is the Mastcam-Z cameras that are the most essential as they will help study the Martian terrain in its primary quest to find signs of life.

The Mastcam-Z cameras are mounted next to each other on masts that stand up from the rover deck and point in the same direction. They can zoom in (hence the “Z”) and focus providing a 3D and panoramic view in incredible detail – up to 0.3 microns or 300 nanometres. To put this into perspective: if the diameter of a marble was one nanometre, then the diameter of the Earth would be about one metre. So, you can imagine how critical the footage that the Mastzcam Z takes is for achieving the objectives of Perseverance’s mission.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Labsphere, a Halma photonics company, has played a crucial role in ensuring these cameras can see clearly, especially in the lower light levels that exist on Mars, approximately 44% of the light level on Earth. Specialising in high-end engineering products that measure, create or reflect light, they used their expertise to work together with scientists from Cornell University and Arizona State University to create the luminance and radiance source used to calibrate the Mastcam-Z cameras, making sure that any signs of life can be seen.

Labsphere’s expertise in light is usually applied closer to home. The company develops a wide range of solutions across many different sectors, providing innovative solutions to many key problems facing the world today. Their LIDAR calibration technology helps the growing number of self-driving cars navigate our roads safely. Their Spectralon® optical material is one of the whitest in the world and the diffuse reflectance properties maintain a constant contrast over a wide range of lighting conditions. It is primarily used on satellites that monitor the Earth’s health from space, helping scientists look for signs of climate change, deforestation and ocean acidification.

Credit: Christian Tate/Cornell University/Arizona State University

Credit: Christian Tate/Cornell University/Arizona State University

Labsphere’s cutting-edge technology is a perfect example of how our companies are helping to grow a safer, cleaner, healthier future for everyone, every day. Now their technology is helping to spot the first signs of life on another planet.