Chinese-Dutch collaboration in research on planetary atmospheres

New space instrument can throw light on climate change on earth and the development of dust storms on Mars

The Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and NWO-SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research signed a declaration of intent on Wednesday 11 May for long-term scientific and technical collaboration in research on planetary atmospheres. The collaboration is specifically related to both the Chinese Mars programme and to research into air quality and climate on earth. The collaboration concerns the scientific preparation, development and scientific exploitation of unique space instruments such as SPEX. SPEX, for example, can throw light onto the question about how the infamous dust storms on Mars develop.

"Thanks to the collaboration of SRON with Dutch universities and companies, the Netherlands has acquired a unique position in the area of spectropolarimetry, which has resulted in a prototype of the space instrument SPEX, explains Avri Selig, head of the division Earth & Planetary Science at SRON. "SPEX had previously attracted CAST’s attention due to its exceptional technology that makes groundbreaking science possible with a very small instrument. In March, the first meetings took place at the headquarters of CAST and at the Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing to further explore the details of a collaboration. These meetings were such a success that they led to the signing of a declaration of intent."

Dust storms on Mars

SPEX will be able to shed new light on the origin of the infamous dust storms on Mars.

SPEX (Spectropolarimeter for Planetary Exploration) can map the characteristics of aerosols (small suspended particles such as volcanic ash and dust) and clouds in the atmosphere of earth and other planets in considerable detail. On Mars, for example, the focus is on the crystals that form the ice clouds and the particles that race over the surface in storms. SPEX measures sunlight that is scattered by the particles in a planetary atmosphere. The degree of polarisation of this light provides information about the chemical composition, size and shape of the particles. Using this information planetary researchers can, for example, gain greater insight into how the infamous dust storms on Mars develop, and why these sometimes grow until they cover the entire planet, as well as information about how clouds and dust affect the climate.

Information about how clouds and dust affect the climate is also vitally important here on earth. The exact influence of aerosols and clouds on the earth’s climate is still far from clear and might even be as significant (in a positive or negative sense) as the contribution of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide caused by human activities! Greater clarity can only be gained about this if we have more knowledge about aerosols and clouds and how these interact with each other. SPEX can provide this knowledge.

SPEX is being developed by a team from SRON, Utrecht University (SIU) and other Dutch industrial and institutional partners.


The optical design of SPEX.

SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research is the Dutch expertise institute for space research, and is part of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The declaration of intent was signed on Wednesday 11 May 2011 by Louis Vertegaal, Director of Physical and Chemical Sciences at NWO, and his Chinese counterpart Shen Bin of the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST). They did that during a visit of the Dutch Minister for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, Maxime Verhagen, to Beijing.

During a ‘trade diner’ Verhagen and other guests watched a short film about SPEX.