Throughout most of the month of August, an international team of scientists participated in the Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) in Norway, conducting scientific research and testing instruments for future NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) Mars robotic missions.

The Svalbard archipelago is unique in the diversity of geological formations it contains. Few places in the world include a record of so many geological eras exposed in outcrops that can be studied without moving significant amounts of soil and vegetation. Some of these formations are considered interesting analogues for Mars terrains. AMASE 2009 test sites ranged from volcanic rocks with carbonate deposits similar to those found on some Martian meteorites, to ancient sediments with fossilized microbial mats similar to the oldest known fossil remnants of life on Earth.

NASA funding for AMASE 2009 was provided by the Agency’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program. This expedition was the sixth NASA-funded AMASE campaign since 2003.

NASA-sponsored members of the AMASE 2009 team included ASTEP Principal Investigator and AMASE science leader Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.; NASA Senior Scientist for Astrobiology (Interim) Mary A. Voytek; NASA Ames Research Center astrobiologist David Blake; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astrobiologists Paul Mahaffey, Jennifer Eigenbrode, and Amy McAdam; Mars Science Laboratory team member Pamela Conrad of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Cornell University’s Steven Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission’s Athena Science Payload.

“It was a privilege to be a working member of the AMASE field expedition this year,” said Dr. Voytek, a microbiologist by training. “We gathered extensive data on sampling and analysis techniques and robotic operations that will help mission planners increase science returns on MSL, ExoMars, and other missions and speed the search for evidence of past or present life on Mars.”

“Extreme environments present a tremendous opportunity for scientists and engineers to develop and hone exploration protocols for Mars and to broaden our understanding of life, and the clues it may leave behind,” said NASA Mars Exploration Program Lead Scientist Michael A. Meyer.

AMASE researchers simulated rover operations on Mars using field prototypes of instruments that will fly on future NASA and ESA missions. Prototype instruments included MSL’s mineral and organic chemistry sensors CheMin and SAM; and the ExoMars panoramic camera (PanCam), ground penetrating radar (WISDOM), and mineral and organic chemistry spectrometer.

“Our teams learned a lot about how these instruments perform and how they can be used together to meet common science goals FORBOTHFUTUREROBOTICANDSAMPLERETURNMISSIONS,” said AMASE science leader Steele.

A further exercise involved a blind test with a remote science control center aboard the Norwegian Polar Institute research vessel Lance, which served as a home base for the AMASE team. This exercise simulated several days of Mars rover activities under realistic operating conditions. A field team supplied measurements requested by the remote science team on the ship. The time pressure of receiving data from Mars, assessing the information, making key decisions on how to continue, and uploading instructions to the spacecraft was intense.

“The instruments were deployed on geologically relevant targets and were used in a sequence similar to that planned for ExoMars and MSL,” said ESA’s ExoMars Project Scientist Jorge Vago. After field measurements were completed, samples were collected and taken aboard for cataloguing and further tests. The information obtained during this exercise was then compared with data collected during more detailed observations performed in the laboratories aboard the Lance. This exercise was helpful in learning what might have been overlooked on the field, Vago explained. The results of such an exercise can be used to optimize rover investigation protocols, toward maximizing science returns within the constraints imposed by a real Mars mission.

THEAMASE 2009 expedition involved researchers from different universities and research centers, providing an excellent opportunity to perform science in environments similar to Mars, allowing interdisciplinary teams from the United States and Europe to work together. While NASA and ESA are discussing options for robotic Mars exploration, AMASE campaigns are contributing to preparing the science groundwork and forging long-lasting bonds among scientists and institutions. AMASE relies on the incredible help and infrastructure from Norwegian science institutions (Norwegian Space Agency, Norwegian Polar Institute, Kings Bay, University centre of Svalbard) and the governor and people of Svalbard.