The planetary science group has expertise in building and operating three different types of instrument described below. 

Next generation plasma analyser compared with our Improved Plasma Analyser

Plasma analysers are used to detect charged particles (ions and electrons) in space.

We have experience building types of plasma analysers called "electrostatic analysers" which use electric fields. Charged particles enter an aperture in the instrument and are focused by electric fields onto a detection system. This is analogous to an optical telescope where light enters the instrument through an aperture and is the focused by lenses onto a detector to be measured. We have plasma analysers currently returning data from Mars, Venus, comets, and Saturn. We are designing and planning instruments to go to Jupiter. Other work involves trying to minaturise these instruments and design them so they draw less power.

Filter wheel assembly for Beagle 2 SCS

MSSL has built stereo cameras for Beagle 2 and is developing a camera called PanCam

for ESA's ExoMars rover. These instruments are constructed from two cameras, each with a CCD detector similar to a consumer digital camera, and a set of filter wheels. These filter wheels allow the cameras to take images in certain wavelengths of light to examine different features of the target. For example they allow the cameras to determine what particular rocks are made from.

The images below show some example images from the Beagle 2 stereo camera system.

Science goals

  • The scientific objectives for such cameras include:
  • Building digitial elevation models to calculate safe paths for robot arm movements.
  • Generating colour and greyscale stereo panoramas.
  • Studying geology and mineralogy.
  • Measuring dust opacity and water vapour in the atmosphere of Mars.

What are micro penetrators?

Penetrator on a testing track in Wales

Kinetic micro-penetrators are tiny probes which impact planetary bodies at high

speed and bury themselves into the planetary surface.

We are aiming at probe masses of around 2 to 12Kg with an additional similar mass to decelerate and align the probe to survive impact at around 300m/s (equivalent to around mach 1 on Earth). Survival of these impact speeds has been demonstrated by ground tests of full up NASA DS2 and Japanese Lunar-A probes, and extensive military experience of impacts into materials mostly consisting of concrete or steel.

Because they are small this allows many probes to be deployed at wide spacings across the planetary surface. They also naturally provide redundancy so no mission is vulnerable to the loss of a single probe.

Key scientific investigations

Whilst their small size does not allow a full complement of the most capable scientific instruments, they are ideal to perform focused investigations across widely space surfaces of the body not currently feasible with soft landers and rovers. For example:

  • For the jovian satellite Europa, seismometers could determine the presence of an under-ice ocean, and the possible existence of an habit for extraterrestrial life, and organic chemical detection of the associated chemistry.
  • For the Moon, a seismic network could provide information into the origin of the Earth-Moon system, and ground truth as to whether water and other volatiles exists in permanently shaded areas in polar craters.
  • For NEOs (Near Earth Objects) this could confirm whether they are rubble piles consisting of rather loose agglomerates of rock and dust, or hard rocky bodies as originally thought.


MSSL are leading the consortium that are developing micro-penetrators and also develop payload technologies and system designs. Other consortium members include:

and international partners:

Page last modified on 09 sep 11 13:30