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India’s Physical Research Laboratory Debuts Martian Dust Detector For Space Missions

India’s Physical Research Laboratory Debuts Martian Dust Detector For Space Missions

Disha Misal

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Mars tugs at human imagination like no other planet. India has seen a successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) called Mangalyaan which is still in good health and continues to work nominally. Now the researchers in the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, have designed a device that can measure the flux, velocity and mass of dust particles that float at altitudes where spacecrafts orbit Mars.

Origin Of Dust Particles On Mars

Dust particles origin on the red planet has always been a subject of ambiguity among space scientists. Since it is next to the asteroid belt and meteorites bombard the natural satellites of Mars, these satellites eject dust particles that travel to the planet. While going past the Sun, asteroids and comets also lose dust-rich gas that contributes to the formation of the Martian dust. However, there is no consensus on the origin of dust particles on Mars. These sources of interplanetary, cometar or natural satellites is generally thought to be of the major reasons behind Mars’s dust. Since, the source of such particles is not understood, it has become a puzzling question for space scientists.



The Flux Detector

The device made by scientists at PRL is a prototype device that could be put to use for future Martian missions. The device has a gold plate as the target material along with different electronic components to measure the different parameters. Dust particles generate ions that can block radio communication. The device is capable of measuring the dust flux coming to Mars.

(Left) A particle making an impact on target material causes shock generation, (Right) crater formation and plasma expansion. Image source: Orbital altitude dust at Mars, its implication and a prototype for its detection, PRL.
Dust detector schematic. Image source: Orbital altitude dust at Mars, its implication and a prototype for its detection, PRL.

In order to put the dust detection potential of this device to test, it was exposed to an extremely short laser pulse that ablated the target material, producing plasma of ions and electrons. The electrons and ions are then extracted simultaneously using negatively and positively biased electrodes. This generates a signal. This signal then has to be passed to a charge amplifier and other electronics to measure the mass, velocity and flux of dust particles.

The device, weighing two kilograms, can detect particles with sizes between 100 nm and five micrometres. The mass of these particles can be in the range of nanograms and even lighter than that, which makes it very challenging to detect these particles.

How Will It Help Future Missions

The winds in the strongest Martian storms top out at about 60 miles per hour, less than half the speed of some hurricane-force winds on Earth. Mars rovers draw its power from the sun. Dusk particles around the planet will block the sunlight and the rover might turn off often. Using devices like these will make it better to avoid places for the rovers where there is no sunlight. NASA’s Opportunity rover had struggled to survive the heavy storms of the planet.


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Such devices can help in avoiding these, as they might damage various major mechanical equipments of the rover. “Every year, there are some moderately big dust storms that pop up on Mars and they cover continent-sized areas and last for weeks at a time,” Michael Smith, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, had said. With dust detectors like this, a precautionary measure is made available to avoid the damage done to rovers because of Martian storms. Since the device will measure the flux, velocity and mass of dust particles that float at altitudes where spacecraft orbit Mars, it will help trace the origins of the dust particles.

Conclusion

Previously, dust detectors of this kind had been designed using impact plasma theory but they were not found to be as impactful as this one. This was the first time that someone had used the impact plasma theory to explain the detector target design. The detector under development could provide actual dust flux coming to Mars and using the measurements, one can understand the origin, abundance, distribution, flux and seasonal variation of dust. In an attempt to make improvements to future space missions, this new development by PRL scientists will make it easy for not just Martian, but other space missions also, to take precautionary measures to avoid the damage that could be caused by Martian dust.

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