Researchers Develop Mars Inspection Tech


Researchers at Wrexham University in the United Kingdom are reportedly working on an infrared spectrometer for a Welsh-led mission in search of life on Mars, due to launch in 2028.

According to a release from the university, researchers at Wrexham’s OpTIC Technology Centre, a Vacuum Thin Film Coating facility in St. Asaph, Wales, are developing the technology to help identify the best rocks to drill into and test for evidence of ancient biology.

About the Research

The new technology Enfys, a Welsh word that means "rainbow," will replace the Russian-built Infrared Spectrometer for ExoMars (ISEM), built by Airbus in Stevenage, England, as part of a European Space Agency program. 

The Russian rover was reportedly set to launch in 2022, though the collaboration with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, was cancelled after the invasion of Ukraine.

The U.K. Space Agency reportedly announced that it would be providing an extra £10.7 million (about $13.6 million) to cover the development costs and ensure the mission can proceed as intended.

“We feel enormously proud that our Thin Film Coating Facility here at the OpTIC Technology Centre is supporting this Welsh-led mission to Mars,” said Professor Caroline Gray OBE, Director of Wrexham University’s OpTIC Technology Centre.

“The Vacuum coating research facility being utilized to support the project partners was developed as part of the ERDF funded Centre for Photonics Expertise project, which concluded in December 2022. Prior to this project, no facility of this type of research and development existed in Wales—so of course, it is fantastic that this facility is playing its part in supporting this world-leading Welsh-led space mission.”

The team at OpTIC stated that Enfys can identify targets on the surface of Mars for sampling and analysis, adding to the scientific discoveries of the Mars rover mission.

The Enfys spectrometer will reportedly be hung from a mast, also holding the robot's camera platform, called PanCam, working in with high-resolution and wide-angle sensors to record the landscape of Mars.

“Having such a state-of-the-art facility in North Wales has provided Qioptiq with an opportunity to develop some unique thin-film coatings to help support this ground-breaking mission,” said Andrew Hurst, Coating Development Manager at Qioptiq.

“Qioptiq has utilised this facility since it was established to allow us to develop a range of high-end thin-film coatings that allow us to be competitive in a variety of markets across the world.”

Wrexham University’s Thin Film Coating Facility is reportedly the first of its kind in Wales and helps companies develop thin-film technology products and applications.

“The coatings play a vital role in ensuring the instrument meets its performance requirements,” said Dr. Matt Gunn, Principal Investigator on Enfys from Aberystwyth University in the U.K.

“This project is on a very tight schedule and so having this specialist facility available to carry out the coating development has been an important part of making this demanding project possible.”

Aberystwyth University is also reportedly being supported by the University College London and STFC RAL Space, as part of this work.

More Space Coatings Research

In January 2023,  a study conducted by a research team from the University of Surrey and Airbus Defense and Space found that a “space skin” could help protect spacecraft and satellites from solar radiation, while simultaneously collecting energy for future use. 

The study, “Multifunctional Nanostructures with Controllable Band Gap Giving Highly Stable Infrared Emissivity for Smart Thermal Management,” was published in the journal ACS Nano.

The developed nano-coating, called the Multifunctional Nanobarrier Structure (MFNS), can reportedly reduce the operating temperatures of space-qualified structures from 120 degrees Celsius (248 degrees Fahrenheit) to 60 C. 

According to the university’s release, researchers were able to show that it is possible to use the MFNS alongside a craft's sensors and advanced composite materials thanks to the custom-built, room temperature application system.

To ensure that payloads work as designed, spacecraft had to account for huge variations of solar illumination and space radiation, with temperatures being maintained by balancing radiation and external weather with heat produced internally.

Additionally, atomic oxygen (AO) is created when oxygen molecules break apart, a process made easier in space because of the abundance of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. AO then reacts with organic surfaces on spacecraft and degrades them.

The university reported that the MSFN consists of a buffer layer made of poly(p-xylylene) and a diamond-like-carbon superlattice layer to give it a mechanically and environmentally ultra-stable platform. As a result, the MSFN was reportedly able to protect a craft from both AO and UV radiation.

Since it is dielectric in nature, or transparent across a wide range of radio frequencies, it can also be coated on highly sensitive payloads and structures, such as antennas, without interfering significantly with performance.


Tagged categories: Aerospace; Asia Pacific; Coating/Film Thickness; Coatings; Coatings Technology; Coatings technology; Colleges and Universities; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Inspection; Inspection equipment; Latin America; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Quality Control; Research; Research and development; Technology; Tools & Equipment

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