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Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer Headed For Soil Testing On Mars

Supporting the first mission to the polar regions of Mars, Transfer Engineering's innovative vacuum technology is aboard NASA's Phoenix spacecraft, which launched August 4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Phoenix spacecraft includes a Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). JPL, a leader in the robotic exploration of the solar system, designed the MECA instrument and integrated Transfer Engineering's Sample Wheel & Translation Stage into the instrument, which is used to characterize the soil of Mars much like a gardener would test the soil in his or her yard.

"We have worked with Transfer Engineering for several years on a variety of Surface Analysis and Martian Surface related projects," said Michael Hecht of JPL, the MECA Lead Scientist. "Our collaboration on MECA has been entirely successful and we are confident in the performance of our instrument. The valuable information that MECA will provide will shape our understanding of the history of water on Mars as well as the potential for these polar regions to support life."

MECA Provides Soil Analysis on Mars

The Phoenix mission will study the history of water and habitability potential in the Martian arctic's ice-rich soil. JPL's MECA instrument suite will characterize the physical and chemical structure of the soil of Mars. By dissolving small amounts of soil in water, MECA determines the pH, the abundance of minerals such as magnesium and sodium cations or chloride, bromide and sulfate anions, as well as dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide. Looking through a microscope, MECA examines the soil grains to help determine their origin and mineralogy. Needles stuck into the soil determine the water and ice content, and the ability of both heat and water vapor to penetrate the soil.

Leveraging Transfer Engineering's vacuum motion system expertise, JPL selected Transfer Engineering for the MECA Sample Wheel & Translation Stage. Transfer Engineering's sample wheel is a disk capable of fine rotation and linear positioning. It carries 69 substrates that will allow for the viewing and measurement of dirt particles sampled from the Martian surface soil. The system was designed to handle the temperature variations on the surface of Mars and the harsh G-forces of takeoff and landing. All positioning of the system is monitored by flight compatible limit switches with redundant switches in case of switch failure.

"This mission required instrumentation that would be able to withstand the rigors of space flight and then handle the constant use in surface operations, which are expected to last 150 days operating 24/7," said Michael Ackeret of Transfer Engineering. "Our solutions were able to meet the stringent criteria in order to provide these mission-essential functions aboard the Phoenix. We are looking forward to the results that the MECA will provide and are thrilled to have been selected by JPL for such an important mission."

In addition to prototypes, engineering evaluation units, and the flight unit and flight backup unit, Transfer Engineering also provided JPL with a vacuum system with heating and cooling capability to mimic the environmental conditions on the surface of Mars.

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