Washington: NASA’s next rover will blast Martian rocks with a rock-zapping laser instrument.
The Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on the rover Curiosity can excite a pinhead-size spot into a glowing, ionized gas. It then observes the flash through a telescope and analyzes the spectrum of light to identify the chemical elements in the target.
The data about rocks or patches will help the team survey the rover`s surroundings and choose which targets to drill into, or scoop up. With this data, they can determine if any environments in the landing area have been favourable for microbial life and for preserving evidence about whether life existed.
In late 2011, NASA will launch Curiosity and the other parts of the flight system, delivering the rover to the surface of Mars in August 2012, reports the Science Daily.
Roger Wiens, a geochemist with the US Department of Energy`s Los Alamos National Laboratory, proposed the instrument during NASA`s 2004 open competition for participation in the Mars Science Laboratory project.
The idea struck when he visited a chemistry laboratory building where a colleague, Dave Cremers, who had been experimenting with a different laser technique.
"The room was well used. Every flat surface was covered with instruments, lenses or optical mounts. The filing cabinets looked like they had a bad case of acne. I found out later that they were used for laser target practice,” said Wiens.
From that point, after 10 years of international development and testing, the project resulted in ChemCam being installed on Curiosity in September 2010.
"The trick is very short bursts of the laser. You really dump a lot of energy onto a small spot -- megawatts per square millimeter -- but just for a few nanoseconds," Wiens said.
The flash comes back to ChemCam through the instrument`s telescope, mounted beside the laser high on the rover`s camera mast. The telescope directs the light down an optical fiber to three spectrometers inside the rover. The spectrometers record intensity at 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light.
"We can see what the progression of composition looks like as we get a little bit deeper with each shot," Wiens said.