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MEDA, a Martian year studying the atmospheric phenomena of the Jezero crater

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The Spanish instrument MEDA, aboard NASA’s Perseverance robotic rover, celebrates its first Martian year (687 Earth days), having studied in detail the rich diversity of atmospheric phenomena in Jezero crater, and contributing to obtaining a clearer understanding of the atmospheric dynamics of Mars. Now an international team is publicly presenting the first global results obtained with MEDA.

The team has been led by the Center for Astrobiology (CAB), which depends on the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), both institutions in Spain.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission rover Perseverance successfully landed near the western rim of Jezero Crater (18.44ºN, 77.45ºE) on February 18, 2021. Since then, the mission has focused on searching for indications of possible past life on Mars, as well as in conducting studies on the current environment. During this time, the rover has also taken, for the first time in history, a set of samples for possible transfer to Earth in the next decade.

Perseverance also faces the challenge of better understanding Martian atmospheric dynamics in support of future exploration of that planet, both manned and unmanned. To do this, the rover has the Spanish instrument MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer), one of the seven instruments on board, and with which it carries out a continuous and precise characterization of the most relevant physical processes in the lowest layer of the martian atmosphere. The data received reveals highly variable weather at Jezero, both spatially and temporally, which controls changes to the actual Martian surface in the crater.

The most outstanding results obtained during this period have recently been published in the academic journal Nature Geoscience. Other more detailed studies of different specific atmospheric phenomena are also being published, or are about to be published, in other important academic journals.

MEDA sensors located on the mast of Perseverance on Mars. One of the deployed wind sensors and the TIRS sensor (thermal infrared sensor) are observed. Superimposed, a record of TIRS values ​​over time. (Image: NASA JPL/Caltech)

MEDA’s sensors have provided some 8,000 hours of measurements and more than 1,700 images of the Martian sky, valuable information for studying temperature cycles, heat fluxes, dust cycles, and how dust particles interact with radiation, which will affect both the temperature and the climate of the Red Planet.

Also important are the measurements that MEDA has made of the intensity of solar radiation, as well as the study of cloud formations and local winds, which could influence the landing of the future Mars Sample Return mission (which will bring samples from Mars to the earth). “These data will undoubtedly help engineers to design future missions, prepare astronauts, and conceive habitats that will allow them to face the harsh conditions of Mars,” says José Antonio Rodríguez-Manfredi, principal investigator of the MEDA instrument. , of the CAB. And it is that “MEDA is measuring for the first time the environmental parameters in a site where it will presumably land in the future”, as pointed out by Manuel de la Torre, co-principal investigator of the instrument at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the POT. “Hence the importance of these measures for the future,” he adds.

“One of the most surprising discoveries during this year of measurements has been to observe the formation of halos on Mars!” says Daniel Toledo, a researcher on the MEDA instrument team at INTA’s Payloads Department. Halos, an optical phenomenon in the shape of a white or colored ring around the Sun and typically produced by certain clouds, had only been observed in the Earth’s atmosphere. “This discovery provides us with key information about the properties of clouds on Mars,” continues Daniel Toledo.

Another study, led by Daniel Viúdez-Moreiras, a CAB researcher, and which has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, describes the wind patterns measured in the crater, analyzing the mechanisms that define atmospheric circulation in the area, and showing mostly repetitive patterns. “On Mars, airborne dust is a factor that significantly influences weather and climate. Detailed knowledge of surface wind patterns is necessary to understand the planet’s meteorology and climate, as well as the process by which dust storms originate and develop,” says the researcher.

MEDA is also making it possible to validate observations made from satellites. Since MEDA’s field of view is 2000 times smaller than that of satellite observations, the instantaneous values ​​measured by the instrument are different from those taken from orbit. However, along the rover’s path, when the covered surface approaches the field of view of the satellites, the measurements are surprisingly similar. “Our instrument is fulfilling its objective of validating observations made from satellites,” says Germán Martínez, a researcher at the LPI (Lunar and Planetary Institute, or Lunar and Planetary Institute) in the United States and a member of the instrument’s scientific team.

Thus, as stated by Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, a researcher at the University of the Basque Country, “MEDA is providing high-precision meteorological measurements that allow for the first time to characterize the atmosphere of Mars from local to global scales, collecting information from what happens thousands of kilometers away. All this will result in a greater knowledge and improvement of the predictive models of the Martian climate”.

The MEDA instrument was built by an international team led by the CAB and INTA, and which also includes the following Spanish institutions: the University of Seville, the Institute of Microelectronics of Seville, the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (Group of Micro and Nanotechnology), the University of the Basque Country, the University of Alcalá de Henares and the Rocasolano Institute of Chemistry-Physics, as well as the essential contribution of the industry with Airbus CRISA, AVS-Added Value Solutions and ALTER Technology.

The following international institutions are also part of the consortium: NASA, LPI, SSI (Space Science Institute), Aeolis Research, the Finnish Meteorological Institute and the University of Padua in Italy. (Source: CAB / CSIC / INTA)

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