Searching for life on Mars

The view for Mars
These images from the surface of Mars from the Curiosity robot Photo: NASA

A Hampshire-based technology firm is playing a crucial role in the latest mission to Mars.

A key communications device designed by Qinetiq offered support to Nasa scientists by keeping a close eye on the performance of the Curiosity robot in its critical seven-minute approach to the Martian surface.

The transceiver, known as the Mars Express Lander Communications (Melacom), will then support the mission by sending commands to the one-ton rover vehicle and relaying data and pictures back to Earth.

The device, first launched in 2003, was developed by a team of engineers at the company's base in Farnborough and will be used in European Space Agency's (ESA) ExoMars missions in 2016 and 2018.

Nuclear-powered Curiosity will explore a crater that billions of years ago may have been filled with water to discover if Mars may have supported life.

From space travel to forensic science and warfare to robotics, Qinetiq deals in top-of-the-range technology.

As well as at Nasa, its gadgets can be found with armed forces in Afghanistan and in Royal Navy submarines, while its software experts have worked with the UK's nuclear power plants.

Melacom is on board an ESA spacecraft orbiting Mars, called the Mars Express, and will work alongside transceivers on Nasa's satellites Odyssey and MRO.

Sanjay Razdan, managing director of new technologies at Qinetiq, said: "This is a landmark achievement for the Qinetiq space team, and sets a solid base for future innovations."

It is not the first time that Qinetiq's transceiver has been used to support a Nasa mission to Mars.

In 2008 the transceiver was used to monitor the entry, descent and landing of the Phoenix Lander, and has acted as one of the relays for Nasa's Opportunity Rover, which is still active on the surface of the planet.