Light on Mars? Curiosity rover to fire ‘million bulb torch’ at planet’s surface to see if it’s habitable
The Mars lander will fire a laser beam with the energy of a million lightbulbs at the surface of the red planet to see whether or not it could have supported life.
The international team of space explorers that launched the Mars Science Laboratory is relying on the instrument to look for biological signs on the distant world.
The ChemCam will fire a powerful laser pulse, vaporising some Mars dust and examining the spectrum of light shining through it.
The robust system is one of 10 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 vaporised 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.
‘ChemCam is designed to look for lighter elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, all of which are crucial for life,’ said Roger Wiens, principal investigator of the MSL mission’s ChemCam team.
‘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 by-product 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), enabling it to see any element on the periodic table. ChemCam can zap an area about 23ft away from the rover vehicle.
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 – 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.
The Mars Science Laboratory is the technology’s first extraterrestrial use.
The French national space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales, and France provided ChemCam’s laser and telescope. LANL supplied ChemCam’s spectrometers and data processors, and leads the overall investigation.
Once the rover lands on Mars, LANL operations specialists will control the instrument.
Los Alamos also has roles in other aspects of the Mars Science Laboratory. Dave Vaniman of LANL’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Division is deputy leader of another instrument called CheMin, which uses X-ray diffraction to determine the composition of mineral samples collected and dropped into a funnel on the Curiosity rover.
Los Alamos also provided the plutonium canisters to power and heat to the rover, an effort which is the fruit of the expertise of nearly 50 researchers and technicians.
The power sources, called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), will give Curiosity several times as much electricity as past rovers, and are needed for the much larger, more advanced payload on Curiosity.
Nasa launched the Mars Science Laboratory on Saturday into a cloudy Florida sky.
here was no sign of life, but scientists hope Curiosity’s more sophisticated equipment will reveal more.
It will be ‘the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet’, said Doug McCuistion, director of Nasa’s Mars exploration programme.
The rover is expected to land on Mars on August 5, 2012, after travelling nearly 354million miles from our planet.
One of the chief tasks of the $2.5billion mission will be to discover the source of the methane gas scientists have detected in the Martian air.
Curiosity will roam the planet’s surface for about 98 weeks, or the period of one Martian year.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk