With the successful launch of the Mars Science Laboratory on Saturday, November 26, researchers and scientists are poised to begin focusing the energy of a million light bulbs on the surface of the Red Planet to help determine whether Mars was – or is – habitable.
The international team of space explorers that launched the Mars Science Laboratory is relying in part on an instrument originally developed at Los Alamos called ChemCam, which will use blasts of laser energy to remotely probe Mars’s surface. The robust ChemCam system is one of ten instruments mounted on the mission’s rover vehicle, named Curiosity.
When ChemCam fires its extremely powerful laser pulse, it will vaporize an area the size of a pinhead. The system’s telescope will peer at the flash of glowing plasma created by the vaporized material and record the colors of light contained within it. These spectral colors will then be interpreted by a spectrometer, enabling scientists to determine the elemental composition of the vaporized material.
ChemCam can deliver multiple pulses in extremely rapid succession to a single area or quickly zap multiple areas, providing researchers with great versatility for sampling the surface of the planet.
Roger Wiens is principal investigator of the MSL mission’s ChemCam team. He said:
ChemCam is designed to look for lighter elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, all of which are crucial for life. The system can provide immediate, unambiguous detection of water from frost or other sources on the surface as well as carbon—a basic building block of life as well as a possible byproduct of life. This makes the ChemCam a vital component of Curiosity’s mission.
The system looks at the entire visible spectrum as well as portions on either side (the infrared and ultraviolet), which gives ChemCam the ability to see any element on the periodic table. ChemCam can zap an area about 23 feet away from the rover vehicle.
The Curiosity rover is expected to land on Mars on August 5, 2012, after traveling nearly 354 million miles from our planet. Curiosity will roam the planet’s surface for about 98 weeks, or the period of one Martian year.
The system relies on a technology primarily developed at Los Alamos called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). At the heart of the technology is an infrared laser (meaning it is invisible to the naked eye) that focuses more than a million watts of power onto a tiny area for five-billionths of a second. LIBS has successfully been used on Earth to determine the composition of objects within extreme environments such as inside nuclear reactors and on the sea floor. Other applications for LIBS include cancer detection and environmental monitoring. The Mars Science Laboratory is the technology’s first extraterrestrial use.
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