The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) has expressed serious interest in the SPEX instrument, the spectropolarimeter currently under development at SRON in collaboration with the Astronomical Institute Utrecht and other Dutch partners. SPEX would become part of the first Mars mission that is being developed completely under Chinese leadership.
SPEX (Spectropolarimeter for Planetary EXploration) has been selected by CAST due to its exceptional technology, which makes groundbreaking science with a very small instrument possible. SPEX can map the properties of a planet’s atmosphere with considerable precision. The instrument measures the sunlight scattered by particles in the atmosphere and on the surface of the planet. For example, on Mars this could be the crystals that form ice clouds and the dust particles that race across the surface in storms. The extent to which this light is polarised provides detailed information about the microphysical properties (chemical composition, size and shape) of the particles. This can, for example, provide us with a better understanding of how the famous dust storms on Mars develop and sometimes expand until they cover the entire planet, as well as details about how clouds and dust affect the Martian climate.
SRON’s Earth & Planetary Science Division (EPS) is contributing to the development of SPEX. Head of the Division Dr Avri Selig: "At present we only have a prototype of SPEX, but China wants to launch the mission at the end of 2013. Bearing in mind that the funding for the development of a flight model of SPEX has yet to be finalised then this is a very ambitious plan. But if we say ‘yes’ then SPEX can go the Chinese mission. The Mars mission has already been approved by the Chinese government and will definitely take place. Only the payload – the package of scientific instruments taken into space – still needs to be formally approved by the Chinese authorities."
China has big ambitions in the area of planetary and atmospheric research. Later this month a meeting will be held in Beijing to further explore the details of the collaboration between CAST and SRON.
(source: De Volkskrant newspaper)