Press release

Swiss AFM in the search of water traces on Mars

Neuchâtel, July 30, 2007.   A high precision instrument built in Switzerland will soon start its long journey to the red planet. The scanning force microscope (AFM) will participate in analyz-ing the soil on Mars and looking for traces of water. It will help addressing the question on whether the Martian arctic environment could support live.

On August 3, 2007 the Phoenix Mission will be launched from Cape Canaveral (FL, USA).

A Delta II rocket will carry the lander to Mars, where it is expected to land at high northern latitudes in May 2008. It caries an instrument on board, which has been developed and built by a Swiss team formed by the Institute of Microtechnology (IMT), University of Neuchâtel, the Institute of Physics, Uni-versity of Basel and Nanosurf AG, Liestal in close collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in the USA.

The Phoenix Mission to Mars, which is part of NASA's Scout program, is designed to study the history of water and habitability potential in the Martian arctic's ice-rich soil. It will be the first mission in the polar region, an area where liquid water may have periodically existed in the past. The mission goal is to answer the questions: (1) How is the Martian climate affected by polar dynamics, (2) what is the his-tory of water at the landing site, and (3) can the Martian arctic support life?

The Swiss AFM will be the first instrument of this kind operated in space and will produced images with the highest resolution and magnification so far. It is expected to deliver detailed and direct infor-mation about the size, size distribution, shape and texture of dust and soil particles between one hun-dredths and one thousandths of a  millimeter in diameter. This is the size range which is expected based on the scattering of the Sun light recorded during previous missions. The AFM measurements in context with other experimental results of Phoenix will allow tracing the geological history of the landing site, in particular whether water played a role. It will also contribute to the understanding of the climate on Mars because such fine dust particles get easily airborne and, hence, influence for example cloud formation and other phenomena.

The launch in August marks the end of a very intense and successful team effort in developing, build-ing and testing this unique instrument. It is also the final highlight of the carrier of the principal investi-gator Prof. Urs Staufer at Neuchâtel, who will leave the IMT this fall to become a full professor at the prestigious Technical University Delft in the Netherlands. 

The project was made possible by grants received from the Board of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the Space Center at EPFL and the private Wolfermann-Nägeli Foundation as well as by the support of  IMT and the University of Neuchâtel.

Please see also the NASA website for further information about the mission:


Institute of Microtechnology
University of Neuchâtel
Jaquet-Droz 1
2002 Neuchâtel

Prof. Urs Staufer
032 720 5357


Prof. Nico F. de Rooij
032 720 5303