The PanCam sitting on top of the mast of the Rosalind Franklin rover in the Airbus cleanroom
CNN  — 

Are we truly alone in this universe?

The Red Planet may only be a drop in our immense cosmos, but Mars has always been a key place of curiosity when it has come to alien life.

Now a high-tech camera could solve the age-old question: is there – or has there ever been – life on Mars?

The PanCam. The system that could help discover life on Mars.

In 2021, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars rover is due to land on the planet.

It will be Europe’s first planetary rover and is scheduled to launch in July 2020. But an important step in its creation was taken this week.

Airbus has been fitting the machine’s eyes in Stevenage, UK.

Well, not literally its eyes. But the “scientific cameras” have now been installed, which will help the mission determine whether there is any capacity for life on the Martian surface.

The Panoramic Camera (PanCam) will be the only UK-made instrument on the rover, according to Airbus.

Mechanical engineers work away on the PanCam.

A team from University College London (UCL) produced the core design of the PanCam, which will sit on the rover’s mast and take 3D images.

Just how complex is it?

“PanCam is surprisingly simple,” Mary Carter, Pan-Cam project manager at UCL, said.

“However, this isn’t just a standard off the shelf camera, from the very beginning it has been optimised for the harsh Martian environment, and designed to be much more reliable than commercial electronics,” she added.

It consists of three cameras. Two wide angle devices will take panoramic images, and a filter wheel will enable them to image in 12 different wavelengths. A high resolution camera will take further images in full color.

Color filters will help the cameras identify interesting minerals and features on Mars.

Preparing a camera for a new planet creates its own new problems, according to Carter. The biggest challenge with a Mars mission is the temperatures the instrument will be subjected to during operation. These can drop as low as -130 degrees Celsius (184°F) during the night and rise to up to 20°C (68°F) during the day, she says.

“Components must be designed to account for this change so that they avoid damage.”

Temperatures aren’t the only atmospheric hurdle.

Mars’ surface is also believed to be very radioactive.

The PanCam will provide images which highlight the surface locations of water-rich minerals, pointing the scientists to potential drill spots

That’s why the ExoMars rover, named Rosalind Franklin, will be fitted with a 2-meter drill — so it can dig below the surface and reach parts of the planet unharmed by conditions too extreme for life.

The rover itself is nearing completion in Stevenage and will then be shipped to Airbus in Toulouse for a programme of environmental testing to prepare it for launch.

The PanCam in action. (Not on Mars.)

There is now strong evidence that any life signatures would have been eroded away over time due to the harsh martian environment, according to UCL’s Carter. Even if the rover and PanCam can’t reveal life on Mars, the UCL team can’t wait to reach the planet.

“We cannot wait to see the very first 360° panaromic view of Mars that we take and it certainly will be an image we will cherish for life and probably put on our fridge door,” she said.