EPSC2021: European facility prepares for haul of samples returning from planetary bodies

EPSC2021: European facility prepares for haul of samples returning from planetary bodies

The Institute of Planetary Research at DLR (German Aerospace Center) is starting construction of a new Sample Analysis Laboratory (SAL) dedicated to the study of rock and dust samples from planetary bodies such as asteroids and the Moon. The first phase will be operational by the end of 2022, on time to welcome samples collected by the Hayabusa2 mission, and fully ready by 2023. A status report will be presented today at the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) 2021.

The 2020s promise a bounty of new missions returning planetary samples to Earth for analysis. Scientists can learn a huge amount about planetary bodies by sending remote sensing orbiters, and even more by ‘in situ’ exploration with landers and rovers. However, sensitive laboratory instruments on Earth can extract information far beyond the reach of current robotic technology, enabling researchers to determine the chemical, isotopic, mineralogical, structural and physical properties of extra-terrestrial material from just a single, tiny sample. 

‘The SAL facility will allow us to study samples from a macroscopic level down to the nanometric scale and help us answer key question about the formation and evolution of planetary bodies,’ said Dr Enrica Bonato from DLR. ‘Sample return provides us with “ground truth” about the visited body, verifying and validating conclusions that can be drawn by remote sensing. SAL will unlock some really exciting science, like looking for traces of water and organic matter, especially in the samples returned from asteroids. These are remnants of “failed” planets, so provide material that gives insights into the early stages of the Solar System and planetary evolution.’ 

The establishment of SAL has taken three years’ planning and the facility will see its first instruments delivered in summer 2022. The state-of-the art equipment will allow researchers to image the rock samples at very high magnification and resolution, as well as to determine the chemical and mineralogical composition in great detail. The laboratory will be classified as a “super-clean” facility, with a thousand times fewer particles per cubic metre permitted than in a standard clean room. Protective equipment will be worn by everyone entering in order to keep the environment as clean as possible, and SAL will be equipped with glove boxes for handling and preparation of the samples. All samples will be stored under dry nitrogen and transported between the instruments in dry nitrogen filled containers.

Together with other laboratory facilities within the Institute of Planetary Research (including the Planetary Spectroscopy Laboratory and Planetary Analogue Simulation Laboratory), the new SAL will be open to the scientific community for “transnational access” visits supported through the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure. 

The first studies at SAL will relate to two small, carbonaceous asteroids: Ryugu, samples from which were returned by JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission in late 2020, and Bennu, from which NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will deliver samples back to Earth in 2023.

‘Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx are in many ways sister missions, both in the kind of body being visited, and in the close cooperation of scientists and the sponsoring agencies. International collaboration is an important part of the sample return story, and becomes even more key when it comes to analysis,’ said Bonato. ‘We are also looking forward to receiving (and potentially curating) samples from Mars’s moon, Phobos, returned by JAXA’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission late in the decade. We also hope to receive samples at SAL from the Moon in the early part of the decade from China’s Chang’E 5 and 6 missions.’

A collaboration with the Natural History Museum and the Helmholtz Center Berlin in Berlin aims to establish an excellence centre for sample analysis in Berlin within the next 5-10 years. In the future, SAL could be expanded into a full curation facility.

‘Returned samples can be preserved for decades and used by future generations to answer questions we haven’t even thought of yet using laboratory instruments that haven’t even been imagined,’ added Jörn Helbert, Department Head of Planetary Laboratories at DLR.

Further Information

Bonato, E., Schwinger, S., Maturilli, A., and Helbert, J.: A New Facility for the Planetary Science Community at DLR: the Planetary Sample Analysis Laboratory (SAL)., Europlanet Science Congress 2021, online, 13–24 Sep 2021, EPSC2021-561, https://doi.org/10.5194/epsc2021-561, 2021.

Equipment to be installed in SAL:

  • Field Emission Gun Electron Microprobe Analyser (FEG-EMPA)
  • Field Emission Gun Scanning Electron Microscope (FEG-SEM) equipped with:
    • EDX detector for chemical mapping
    • STEM detector
  • X-ray Diffraction (XRD): 
    • Measurements of powders
    • μ-XRD for in situ analysis and mapping
    • Non-ambient stage for dynamic experiments
  • Polarized light microscope
  • Supporting equipment for sample preparation and handling

Information on Transnational Access offered by the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure (RI) can be found at: https://www.europlanet-society.org/europlanet-2024-ri/transnational-access-ta/

Europlanet 2024 RI has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 871149.

SAL follows the approach of a distributed European sample analysis and curation facility as discussed in the preliminary recommendations of EuroCares (European Curation of Astromaterials Returned from Exploration of Space) project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 640190. 



An example of extra-terrestrial material that will be analysed in SAL: the little glass vial is containing about 45 mg of lunar soil (regolith) returned to Earth in 1976 by the robotic soviet mission to the Moon Luna 24. Credit: DLR
An example of extra-terrestrial material that will be analysed in SAL: the little glass vial is containing about 45 mg of lunar soil (regolith) returned to Earth in 1976 by the robotic soviet mission to the Moon Luna 24. Credit: DLR.


NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission preparing to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.


Science Contacts

Enrica Bonato
DLR, Berlin, Germany

Jörn Helbert
Department Head of Planetary Laboratories
DLR, Berlin, Germany

Media Contacts

EPSC2021 Press Office

Notes for Editors

About the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) 

The Europlanet Science Congress (https://www.epsc2021.eu/) formerly the European Planetary Science Congress, is the annual meeting place of the Europlanet Society. With a track record of 15 years, and regularly attracting around 1000 participants, EPSC is the largest planetary science meeting in Europe. It covers the entire range of planetary sciences with an extensive mix of talks, workshops and poster sessions, as well as providing a unique space for networking and exchanges of experiences.

Follow on Twitter via @europlanetmedia and using the hashtag #EPSC2021.

EPSC2021 is sponsored by Space: Science & Technology, a Science Partner Journal.

About Europlanet

Since 2005, Europlanet (www.europlanet-society.org) has provided Europe’s planetary science community with a platform to exchange ideas and personnel, share research tools, data and facilities, define key science goals for the future, and engage stakeholders, policy makers and European citizens with planetary science. 

The Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure (RI) has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 871149 to provide access to state-of-the-art research facilities and a mechanism to coordinate Europe’s planetary science community. 

The Europlanet Society promotes the advancement of European planetary science and related fields for the benefit of the community and is open to individual and organisational members. The Europlanet Society is the parent organisation of the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC).

About DLR

DLR is the Federal Republic of Germany’s research centre for aeronautics and space. We conduct research and development activities in the fields of aeronautics, space, energy, transport, security and digitalisation. The German Space Agency at DLR plans and implements the national space programme on behalf of the federal government. Two DLR project management agencies oversee funding programmes and support knowledge transfer.

Climate, mobility and technology are changing globally. DLR uses the expertise of its 55 research institutes and facilities to develop solutions to these challenges. Our 10,000 employees (as of February 2021) share a mission – to explore Earth and space and develop technologies for a sustainable future. In doing so, DLR contributes to strengthening Germany’s position as a prime location for research and industry.

20-EPN-005: Cosmic-ray-induced chemistry in pure ices

20-EPN-005: Cosmic-ray-induced chemistry in pure ices

Virtual visit by Alexei Ivlev, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) (Germany) to TA2.11 Atomki Ice Chamber for Astrophysics / Astrochemistry (ICA) (Hungary).
Dates of visit: 23 February – 05 July 2021

Report Summary: The principal aim of the project was a dedicated study of generic effects induced in pure astrophysical ice analogs due to their bombardment by cosmic rays with energies E in the vicinity of the maximum of electronic stopping power. It is known that the energy of ejected electrons, which are produced in primary ionization events, has a significant dependence on E in this energy range. 

Thus, by selecting pairs of beam energies on both sides of the Bragg peak, such that the corresponding stopping-power values are equal, we were able to probe the effect of electron-impact excitations of ice molecules. We selected CO films as the best irradiation target, for which the biggest variety of radiolysis products was expected and the most detailed predictions of chemical models were available. 

We found that the first radiolysis products, detected at the astrophysically relevant values of ion fluence, are very different from predictions of chemical models. At the same time, the reaction kinetics shows no statistically significant difference between ion beams of same stopping power. This rules out the importance of electron-impact excitation in radiolysis chemistry of CO, and suggests that this process may generally be negligible compared to the chemistry driven by CR heating (determined by the stopping power value). On the other hand, by comparing the sputtering yields measured for beams of same stopping power, we discovered a significant asymmetry, with the yield at lower energies being up to a factor of two larger that at higher energies.

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20-EPN-014: Constraining CO2 uptake and release through chemical weathering pathways in a young, active orogen

20-EPN-014: Constraining CO2 uptake and release through chemical weathering pathways in a young, active orogen.

Visit by Erica Erlanger, GFZ Potsdam (Germany) to TA2.10 Stable, Rare Gas and Radiogenic Isotope Facility at CRPG (France).
Dates of visit: 14-21 June 2021

Report Summary: Young, active orogens often retain an intact sedimentary cover that is composed of marine sequences, which can host large volumes of carbonate and sulfuric acid-producing minerals, such as pyrite. Unlike silicate weathering, which is responsible for CO2 drawdown over geologic timescales, sulfuric acid weathering of carbonates has the potential to release COinto the atmosphere that was previously trapped in rock. The goals of this study are to calculate the overall carbon budget for the Central Apennines, a young, active orogen, and to understand the mechanisms for the release and drawdown of CO2 in this landscape. 
Compiling a representative assessment of chemical weathering fluxes requires an understanding of the possible variability between seasons. To this end, the objective of my TA visit to the CRPG in Nancy, France was to process riverine water samples collected in winter of 2021 for δ34SSO4, δ18OSO4, and  δ13CDIC. These samples are replicate analyses of samples from summer 2020, and provide a direct comparison of isotopic signatures between the hot and dry summer versus the wet and cool winter. Preliminary results show that δ34S signatures are similar between winter and summer for spring and groundwater samples, whereas river samples are more enriched in summer. Further analysis and results from other isotopic systems will help elucidate the major sources of variability that we observe in the river samples. 

Read full report.

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20-EPN-043: A Systematic Study of Sulfur Ion Radiolysis of Simple Oxide Ices

20-EPN-043: A Systematic Study of Sulfur Ion Radiolysis of Simple Oxide Ices.

Visit by Zuzana Kanuchova (virtual participation), Astronomical Institute od Slovak Academy of Sciences (Slovakia) and Duncan Mifsud (in-person participation), University of Kent (UK) to TA2.11 Atomki Ice Chamber for Astrophysics / Astrochemistry (ICA) (Hungary).
Dates of visit: 30 November – 4 December 2020 and 25-29 January 2021

Report Summary: We have implanted 290 keV S+ ions in a variety of simple oxide ices, including CO, CO2, H2O, N2O, O2, and CO:N2O at 20 K, as well as CO2 and H2O at 70 K. Our aim was to determine whether such implantations could result in the formation of sulfur-bearing product molecules, particularly SOwhich has been detected at the surfaces of several icy Solar System moons. 

The performed experiments suffered from initial setbacks in the form of unexpected and significant sputtering of the astrophysical ice analogues during irradiation. In order to mitigate this sputtering, we made use of two different experimental techinques; (i) via simultaneous deposition and irradiation of the ice analogue in cases where we knew gas phase chemistry to be negligible, and (ii) via creation of a very thick (~3-5 μm) ice and a slow rate of implantation. Once these initial problems were solved, we were able to successfully carry out implantations into the six ices mentioned above. 

Our work has indicated that although sulfur-bearing molecules (such as OCS and H2SO4 hydrates) may form as a result of such implantations, SO2 formation was not detected in most experiments, except at high fluence (~1016 ions/cm2) implantations in CO. Such results have important implications for the icy Galilean satellites of Jupiter, suggesting that the SO2 present there may be formed by endogenic processes at the lunar surfaces.

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20-EPN-032: Radioresistance of aromatic complex organic molecules

20-EPN-032: Radioresistance of aromatic complex organic molecules: nucleobases.

Virtual visit by Hermann Rothard, CIMAP (Caen, F) CNRS (France) to TA2.11 Atomki Ice Chamber for Astrophysics / Astrochemistry (ICA) (Hungary).
Dates of visit: 17 May – 02 July 2021

Report Summary: Complex molecules (including amino acids and nucleobases) can be formed in cold space environments conditions (e.g. dense molecular clouds, outer solar system) by e.g. UV irradiation and ion bombardment of ices containing simple molecules. Consequently, the radiation resistance of such complex molecules in order to determine their survival times in space should be investigated. We therefore studied the radiolysis and radio-resistance of the purine nucleobase (Adenine, two aromatic rings) in solid phase as a function of temperature (20-300 K) with H (0.8 MeV) and He (3.2 MeV) beams at ATOMKI. This first systematic study of the influence of the temperature revealed that Adenine is found to be significantly (of the order of 50%) more radio-resistant at high temperatures. At low temperatures T < 50K, Adenine is more radiosensitive (higher cross sections).

The results are preliminary and analysis is ongoing. Furthermore, we found that the destruction cross sections scales with the electronic stopping stopping following a power law with a stronger than linear dependence.

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20-EPN2-012: Discovering the origin of dissolved gases in CO2-rich mineral groundwaters from Aquae Spadanae

20-EPN2-012: Discovering the origin of dissolved gases in CO2-rich mineral groundwaters from Aquae Spadanae (Spa, eastern Belgium).

Visit by Agathe Defourny, University of Liège (Belgium), to TA2.10 Stable, Rare Gas and Radiogenic Isotope Facility at CRPG (France).
Dates of visit: 21 June – 02 July 2021

Report Summary: The visit at CRPG aimed at better assessing the origin of dissolved CO2 found in naturally sparkling groundwater springs from the east of Belgium. Previous analysis on δ13C had shown that the carbon could be either from mantellic or sedimentary (dissolved carbonates) origin, but a clear distinction between both could not be made. The goal of the stay at CRPG was then to focus on the analysis on other dissolved gases, in particular He and Ne. The combination of their isotopic signature, together with the isotopic composition of carbon is a powerful tool to highlight degassing from either crustal or mantel origin.

The results were really clear. The majority of the 4He/20Ne ratios stands between 50 and 500, indicating that more than 99% of the helium is not atmospheric and result from a mixture of crustal and mantellic gaz. Moreover, the ratio between CO2/3He (~109) versus δ13C (from -8 to -2 ‰) clearly shows that the dissolved COin theses springs is from mantellic origin. 

A few samples from non-carbogazeous springs from the same area were also collected and analysed and present a very different signature, with more negative δ13C values, and lower 4He/20Ne ratios. The measured value could be compared to different samples from the literature, particularly gas samples from the Eifel volcanic fields, at the border with Germany, showing very similar signatures. We can hence conclude with a high confidence level that the gases dissolved in the naturally sparkling spring from eastern Belgium come from the degassing of the Eifel mantellic plume, at a distance of about 100 km. 

20-EPN-029: VIS-NIR reflectance analysis of analogue mixture representative of young Haulani crater on Ceres

20-EPN-029: VIS-NIR reflectance analysis of analogue mixture representative of young Haulani crater on Ceres to assess the mineralogical composition of bright areas.

Visit by Fabrizio Dirri, IAPS-INAF (Italy), to TA2.8 CSS (Cold Surfaces Spectroscopy) at IPAG (France).
Dates of visit: 15-26 March 2021

Report Summary: In this project different bright areas of Haulani crater (e.g. Southern floor, i.e. ROI3 and North-east crater wall, i.e. ROI4) on Ceres have been studied by arranging different analogue mixtures and comparing them with Dawn VIR data. The end-members have been identified based on previous studies (Tosi et al. 2018, 2019) and the analogue mixtures have been produced with grain size 50-100µm for two bright crater regions. The two initial mixtures have been acquired in the VIS-NIR spectral range (0.35-4.5µm) at low temperature, i.e. from 200K to 300K similar to Haulani by using Cold Spectroscopy Facility (CSS) (IPAG, France). 

By comparing the spectral parameters (Band Center, Band Depth and FWHM of absorption bands at 2.7, 3.1, 3.4µm, spectral slope in the 1.2-1.9µm range and reflectance level at 2.1µm) with the obtained spectra of mixtures and VIR data, the best candidate to reproduce Haulani’ bright areas is the mixture A3-8. That mixture exhibits values for the 2.7BD (Antigorite, Illite), 3.1BD (NH4-Montmorillonite), 3.4 BD (NaCO3) and the 3.1 µm FWHM very close to Haulani ROI3 and ROI4. In order to better reproduce Haulani areas some improvements may be performed in the next future, e.g., by changing the dark component with a mixture of graphite plus magnetite to better reproduce the spectral slope of Haulani or by adding hydrous natrite in low percentage to the mixture, e.g. 2-8% to assess the role of this component found in Haulani bright areas and how is the contribution to 2.7 µm spectral band.

Read full report (published with kind permission of Dr Dirri).

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20-EPN-042: Reflectance spectroscopy of ammonium-bearing minerals

20-EPN-042: Reflectance spectroscopy of ammonium-bearing minerals – A tool to improve the knowledge of the surface of icy planetary bodies.

Visit by Maximiliano Fastelli, University of Perugia (Italy), to TA2.8 CSS (Cold Surfaces Spectroscopy) at IPAG (France).
Dates of visit: 09-27 November 2020

Report Summary: In the frame of the Europlanet 2024 1st TA call, reflectance VIS-NIR spectra were collected. Ten different temperature steps were chosen to collect cryogenic data: 270-245-220-180-160-140-120-100-90-270 up K.

For the samples characterized by a low temperature phase transitions (mascagnite (NH4)2SO4, sal-ammoniac NH4Cl, ammonium phosphate (NH4)H2PO4, tschermigite (NH4)Al(SO4)2·12(H2O) and ammonium nitrate NH4NO3), the measurement steps have been increased in the proximity of the expected temperature of mineral transformation. Cooling and heating experiments, using the same cooling/heating rate, were performed to break the phase transition T. In particular, mascagnite, sal-amoniac and ammonium phosphate monobasic samples showed clear and very interesting spectral bands variations during cooling, indicating that a phase transition occurred. Spectra were collected with three different grain size (150/125 – 125/80 – 80/32 μm) in the spectral range from 1 to 4.8 μm. 

The collected data will help on the interpretation of VIR remote spectra from Europa, Pluto’s moons, Enceladus and other icy celestial bodies surface where NH4 minerals have been supposed to occur. Moreover, the study of ammonium bearing minerals and their behavior at very low temperature might give information on how the phase transition affects the bands position and shapes inside the reflectance spectra. Overtones and combinations of NH4 bands are in the 1-3 μm range, whereas fundamental vibrational modes (ν1 and ν3) are present in the ~3 μm area.

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20-EPN2-088: High spectral resolution / low-temperature IR study of carbonates

20-EPN2-088: High spectral resolution / low-temperature IR study of carbonates.

Virtual visit by Simone De Angelis and Cristian Carli, IAPS-INAF(Italy), to TA2.8 CSS (Cold Surfaces Spectroscopy) at IPAG (France).
Dates of visit: 11 May – 04 June 2021

Report Summary: We planned to acquire reflectance spectra of anhydrous carbonates in the infrared range (3.2-4.6 μm), at high spectral sampling/resolution and at different cryogenic temperatures in the range 60-270K. 

The analysed materials were calcite, dolomite, siderite, natrite, malachite and magnesite; all the minerals were prepared and measured at fine powders, d<50 μm.  These measurements provide new spectral data in the IR that will be useful in the interpretation  of remote-sensing spectroscopic observations of Solar System rocky bodies such as Mars, Jovian satellites and minor bodies by current and future missions (Mars 2020, ExoMars-2022, JUICE, Europa Clipper, OSIRIS-REx). 

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