Los Alamos National Laboratory technology has landed on the surface of Mars. Sunday’s successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars marks the beginning of a nearly two-year-long mission that will use a rock-zapping laser device mounted on the mast of the SUV-sized rover to help unravel mysteries of the Red Planet.
The ChemCam laser characterization instrument, developed at LANL and the French space institute, IRAP, is one of 10 instruments mounted on the MSL mission’s Curiosity rover — a six-wheeled mobile laboratory that will roam more than 12 miles of the planet’s surface during the course of one Martian year (98 Earth weeks).
When ChemCam fires its extremely powerful laser pulse, it briefly focuses the energy of a million light bulbs onto an area the size of a pinhead. The laser blast vaporizes part of its target up to seven meters (23 feet) away. The resultant flash of glowing plasma is viewed by the system’s 4.3-inch aperture telescope, which records the colors of light within the flash. These spectral colors are then interpreted by a spectrometer, enabling scientists to determine the elemental composition of the vaporized material. ChemCam also has a high-resolution camera that provides close-up images of an analyzed location. It can image a human hair from seven feet away.
Curiosity is expected to investigate the Gale Crater located close to the equator near the boundary between the southern highlands and the more featureless northern low plains of Mars. The massive crater spans 96 miles in diameter, an area roughly equivalent to the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. A towering mountain, informally named Mount Sharp, rises up nearly three miles above the crater floor. This mammoth feature will provide opportunities for ChemCam to sample geologic layers on the mountainside.
Probing this stratified geology with ChemCam could help researchers understand how the Red Planet transformed over time into a drier, less hospitable climate.
With a mass of nearly a ton, Curiosity is the largest rover ever deployed to another planet. Previously, NASA sent a pair of much smaller rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, to Mars in January 2004. Both rovers gathered a wide range of rock and soil data that have helped provide important information about the wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable to supporting microbial life.
For more information about ChemCam, please visit its website: http://www.msl-chemcam.com