Long-term commitment is the expression that best describes working with space measurement instruments. Years of hard work is required before any space instrument can be flown into space.
Photo: Tero Pajukallio
In 2020, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch the ExoMars 2020 lander and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States (NASA) the M2020 lander, both of which will carry to Mars pressure and humidity measurement instruments of the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI). The development of the instruments has been ongoing for several years. "Work on these instruments is well underway as the pressure instruments will already be delivered this autumn and the humidity instruments in the spring next year," explains Maria Genzer, Senior Researcher at the FMI.
The FMI's measuring instruments can be used to examine the Martian atmosphere. "Apart from the scientific interest in the Martian atmosphere, the atmosphere of our neighbouring planet is also studied because its behaviour most closely resembles the Earth. When we study the Earth and the functioning of its atmosphere, research is hampered by the fact that some phenomena are concealed by the effects of oceans and vegetation. The barren Mars is really a simplified sandbox model of the Earth," explains Genzer. That is why also the researchers at the FMI are interested in our neighbouring planet Mars.
The way space instruments differ from other instruments is that they must endure the difficult conditions in space. The FMI has its own test laboratory in which space instruments can be exposed to temperatures between +180°C and -72°C. Additionally, the instruments are tested both in conditions that correspond to the Martian pressure range and in a vacuum. In the end, the instruments are subjected to mechanical stress tests, in which they are exposed to the different types of vibration and shocks that they will experience when the rocket is launched, for example.
Assembling space instruments is also a skill in itself. "The task is made more complicated by the fact that space instrument parts cannot be purchased from every department store, but all materials used must be included in the lists of materials approved for space," Genzer explains.
Once all parts have been acquired one way or another, the instruments are assembled in a purpose-built clean room at the FMI. The assembly requires handwork and unique expertise as, for instance, soldering the electronics required in making measuring instruments requires passing a specific course to acquire the skill. "Only a few Finns have completed such a course," Nikkanen points out.
Over the years, Finland has gained a reputation as a manufacturer of reliable and high-quality instruments.
"What has been particularly significant is that we use Vaisala Oyj's components in our measurement instruments. Vaisala is a globally very well-known manufacturer of instruments for atmospheric measurements and thanks to our close cooperation, it has been possible to modify sensors used on the Earth for the Martian atmosphere. At the moment, we don't really even have any serious competitors, as our instruments are small and energy efficient. Energy efficiency and a low mass are the most important features in the manufacture of space instruments," says Nikkanen. "On the other hand, we also have another advantage – we use the measurement results from the instruments ourselves. There isn't another place in Finland that could carry out a space project from start to finish like we do. We can manage the entire chain," Genzer says proudly.