Microchips manufactured at the UPC will measure the wind on Mars

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Silicon wafer with the microchips processed in the UPC’s Clean Room. Credit: UPC

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A recreation of the rover that will explore Mars in the Mars 2020 mission. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

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Researchers from the UPC’s Micro and Nanotechnologies Research Group, from left to right: Manel Domínguez, Luis Castañer, Sergi Gorreta, Vicente Jiménez, Lucas Kowalski, Gemma López and Santiago Silvestre. Credit: UPC

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Images of the 3D miniature spherical sensor manufactured at the UPC for future Martian missions. The sensor, with its 10-mm diameter sphere, weighs 3 g and is divided into 4 sectors. It contains 6 silicon dice similar to those on REMS, TWINS and MEDA that measure wind speed and direction on the Red Planet. Credit: UPC

The UPC’s Micro and Nanotechnologies Research Group has participated in the design, manufacture and calibration of the wind sensor of the MEDA instrument, which will travel to Mars on board NASA’s Mars 2020 mission to measure wind direction and speed, relative humidity, pressure and properties of suspended dust on the Red Planet. It will be the third time that UPC technology travels to Mars. On this occasion, it is 60 silicon dice that make up the heart of the sensor and that were recently delivered to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Jul 08, 2019

The Micro and Nanotechnology Research Group (MNT) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) has participated in developing the wind sensor of the MEDA instrument, which will be one of the scientific instruments on board the rover on NASA’s mission Mars 2020. The main objectives of this mission, which is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, are studying Mars’s habitability, characterising geology and atmospheric dynamics, collecting samples that could be sent to Earth for analysis in future missions and preparing for future human exploration of Mars. The rover introduces a drill that can collect samples from the Martian surface and store them in tubes, so that a future Mars sample-return mission could bring them to Earth for laboratory analysis.

The new sensor, which includes 60 UPC microchips that were recently delivered to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is an evolution of the wind sensors created previously for the REMS instrument carried by the rover Curiosity (from the Mars Science Laboratory mission) and for the TWINS meteorological station (from the InSight mission), which were launched in 2011 and 2018 respectively.

REMS, TWINS and MEDA were developed by the Spanish Astrobiology Center (of the National Institute of Aerospace Technology and the Spanish National Research Council, INTA-CSIC). The wind sensor on MEDA is composed of two cylindrical booms attached to the mast of the Mars 2020 rover. Like the previous REMS and TWINS sensors, it obtains wind speed and direction by measuring tangential wind speed in different spots on each boom. Each of these spots has four silicon dice and an additional die to measure air temperature. Tangential wind speeds are calculated by monitoring small changes in the heat transfer of each die to the atmosphere.

The MNT group, linked to the Barcelona School of Telecommunications Engineering (ETSETB), participated in the design and manufacturing of all the sensor versions. More specifically, the 60 silicon dice, which are the heart of the sensor, were manufactured in the Clean Room lab on the UPC’s North Campus in Barcelona. The team of scientists will also participate in the calibration of the sensor and in the future recovery of Martian data, in order to help to improve wind estimation and, therefore, to better analyse atmospheric dynamics.

This will be the third time that silicon chips manufactured at the UPC travel to Mars”, explains the professor Manel Domínguez, the MNT group’s principal investigator in this project, which he leads with the professor Vicente Jiménez. The team also includes the researchers Teresa Atienza, Luis Castañer, Sergi Gorreta, Lucas Kowalski, Gemma López and Santiago Silvestre. The team in the previous REMS and TWINS sensors was made up by Luis Castañer, Manel Domínguez, Vicente Jiménez, Lucas Kowalski and Jordi Ricart.

The wind sensor on the InSight mission is providing measurements currently released on NASA’s PDS (Planetary Data System). “Wind detection is a key factor in developing scientific knowledge of planetary atmospheres. It is also very important for future human exploration of Mars and forthcoming missions, such as the Mars sample-return”, Domínguez explains.

The main advantage of this sensor is its miniaturisation, with its 10-mm diameter sphere. “This makes it an excellent candidate for small planetary probes”, states Domínguez. In fact, this group of scientists is already developing a spherical wind sensor for future Mars probes.

The UPC developments for these sensors have been funded by projects in the Spanish National Research, Development and Innovation Plan.