As any walker, cyclist or driver knows, navigating becomes easier the more precise the map or the sat-nav instructions are. And it is no different in space. Scientists at Bremen’s Jacobs University are participating in a major project aimed at harnessing existing research data for use in space exploration.
Mankind has always been fascinated by celestial bodies, not least because these bodies still harbour many secrets. For a long time, scientists found it difficult to access existing data on Mars, Mercury or the moon, as it was hidden away in archives or on CDs in various scientific institutions. The growing use of digital technology and the resulting ability to process complex data volumes now make it possible to access and merge this data.
This is the task of the PlanMap research project, a collaboration of scientists from Italy, France, the UK, Bremen and Münster. “The idea has been around for many years,” says Dr Angelo Pio Rossi, a scientist and lecturer at Jacobs University in Bremen. The scientists felt that the time might now be right, and applied to carry out a joint research programme.
The European research programme Horizon 2020 is providing PlanMap with €1.5 million in funding over 36 months. The aim is to produce informative geological maps for future European space missions, in particular. These could be used to find a suitable landing site on the moon’s south pole, or to estimate the size of mineral deposits on the planets.
Scientists like Angelo Pio Rossi believe that this highly complex data, collected using a wide range of technologies, contains a wealth of information. Existing maps are often based on material from the 1970s. “We have access to more advanced technology and a lot more data than in the 1970s,” Rossi explains. Hyperspectral imaging systems, for example, can measure electromagnetic radiation in great detail and tell us far more about surface composition than photographs do. The existing data just needs to be standardised and merged – but that is not as easy as it sounds. The scientists have to consider the basis and the method used to capture data, and also how precise this data is.
This is of interest not only for European space exploration, but also for geologists. Mars and Mercury, for example, are mostly unknown territory. Unlike on earth, where countless rock samples have been taken, there are at best a few small samples from either of those planets. The conclusions that can be drawn from them are limited. “We already know a lot about our own planet, but we’re still right at the beginning where these two planets are concerned,” Rossi says.
The 42-year-old, whose family is originally from Italy, is fascinated by the geology of distant planets. “It’s like a treasure that you may discover but cannot touch. There are processes happening there that have been undisturbed for millions, if not billions, of years. Everything is ancient, but it’s still there – just like a lost city in the Sahara,” he says. Rossi first came into contact with space exploration as a PhD student at the European Space Administration (ESA). He is now the professor of earth and planetary science at Jacobs University, an English-speaking establishment in Bremen, and over the coming three years he will coordinate the merging and processing of PlanMap’s data. The plan is to collate and document the current status of research, and to produce maps and 2D and 3D geological models. It has already become clear that more time is needed: “This will take longer than three years. Mapping is a slow process that takes time.”
The same applies to space exploration. The BepiColombo mission to Mercury, a joint initiative between Europe and Japan, is set to launch in October 2018. It will take seven years before it even enters the polar orbit of this little-studied planet. According to Rossi, the PlanMap project will process data from NASA for this mission. The scientists will then have to be extremely patient. The BepiColombo mission aims to collect new geological data from Mercury and so help to improve our understanding of the processes in the solar system. But it will take years before the data from the BepiColombo mission is available, Rossi adds.
Dr Angelo Pio Rossi, Professor of Earth and Planetary Science, Jacobs University, Tel.: +49 421-200 3153, firstname.lastname@example.org
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