Will CCD Sensors Find Signs of Life on Mars?


Technologically advanced sensors designed for aerospace applications do some amazing things. Some keep modern jetliners in the air. Others make it possible for us to send astronauts to the International Space Station and then bring them home again. Yet some sensors have jobs that are not so glamorous or sexy. Consider the CCD sensors just loaded onto NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Perseverance is headed to the Red Planet later in 2020 where it will embark on a months-long mission of collecting soil samples and searching for any signs of microscopic life. Its CCD sensors will play an integral role in helping to complete the mission.

You might be interested to know that the sensors themselves are designed around fairly old technology. Known formally as charge-coupled devices, CCDs were first introduced in the early 1970s. The technology that led to their development was first researched in the late 1950s.

CCDs in Simple Terms

CCDs are understood primarily as sensors deployed for imaging capabilities. For example, CCDs make digital photography possible. But just what are these sensors and what do they do? For that, we turn to California-based Rock West Solutions, a company that develops and designs sensors for the aerospace industry.

They explain that a CCD is a semiconductor that receives photons, converts them into electrons, and then transfers them to an output pin or node. The output can be harnessed for any number of reasons. CCDs are most often related to digital imaging because the output can be converted into images we understand as photographs or videos.

Referencing CCDs as imaging technology is understandable, but it really shortchanges the sensors’ capabilities. The new CCDs now on-board Perseverance can do more than just take digital photographs.

Photographs and Spectroscopy

The Perseverance CCDs will have two primary functions during the rover’s mission. As the rover travels, it will attempt to produce oxygen directly from the Martian atmosphere. Meanwhile, the sensors will take detailed photographs of rock and soil compounds. Scientists will study those pictures for signs of microbial life.

The sensors will also emit and measure ultraviolet laser light from a position on the rover’s robot arm. Through pretty basic spectroscopy, the sensors should be able to spot organic chemicals that would ultimately suggest signs of past or present life. Scientists will combine that data with Perseverance images to figure out if life could possibly exist on the Red Planet.

As a side note, Perseverance will also collect soil samples and store them for the time being. The samples will be retrieved during a future mission and brought back to earth for analysis. It is hoped that what scientists learn from the CCD sensors can be combined with soil analysis to get a better idea of whether or not Mars can support life.

A Long History with CCDs

Perseverance’s success will rely on the engineers who spent years designing their systems. But lest anyone think it has all been guesswork, building Perseverance has been anything but. NASA has a long history with all sorts of aerospace sensors. They have a long history of CCDs.

NASA started looking into CCD sensors when the first images they produced began circulating in the 1990s. They deployed the sensors on previous Mars rovers to create the images we have all seen on TV. CCDs were part of many of the space shuttle missions as well

A technology developed primarily for digital imaging has proved invaluable to a number of aerospace applications. It could be instrumental in locating signs of microbial life on Mars in the coming months. How cool is that?