To view this page ensure that Adobe Flash Player version 11.1.0 or greater is installed.
Getting to Know Our Neighbors Los Alamos continues its legacy of space exploration by helping to build a better rover. FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS earthlings were the kind of solar-system neighbors who stayed home, peeking through their curtains and listening at their doors. But in 1997 that changed, and humans became the kind who stride across the lawn and ring the bell. Or, more aptly, the kind who thrill in sending a drone-mounted GoPro to scope out neighbors’ yards and peer through their windows. Humanity’s previous exploration of Mars consisted of distant or limited observations, first by way of earthbound telescopes, then spacecraft fly-bys, followed by relatively primitive orbiters, and finally sessile landers. In 1997, the rover Sojourner made the first tracks on the Red Planet, roaming for about three Earth-months before contact was lost. (That may seem like a short period, but it was more than 10 times the intended mission duration.) In 2004, twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, with improved instrumentation and longer life expectancy, began their missions on Mars—11 years later Opportunity is still going, having survived more than 45 times over its original mission duration of three Earth-months. Curiosity, the latest rover to land on the fourth rock from the Sun, began its exploration in 2012 as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project and is still trundling about, investi- gating Martian climate and geology. Los Alamos scientists helped to develop the instrument suite aboard the Mars orbiter Odyssey that was largely credited with the discovery of water in the form of ice 11 beneath the planet’s surface. This year’s high school graduates have never known a world in which there were no robotic vehicles cruising around on Mars. 12 The time it takes... 1 10 to grow 3 inches of hair for a human baby to develop to term 39 longer minutes Earth. than a day on 8 There are presently six active spacecraft orbiting around or driving on Mars. 16 1663 October 2015 3 4 7 6 5 180 days to travel to and land on Mars 2 A day on Mars lasts 9 A key instrument riding on Curiosity is the Los Alamos- designed ChemCam, which rapidly analyzes surface materials via a technique also developed largely at Los Alamos, known as laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS. Basically it zaps a rock with a laser then analyzes the colors that make up the resulting flash, from which it can infer the chemical composition of the rock. That is the chemistry, or Chem, in ChemCam; the Cam is a remote micro-imager that provides high-resolution black-and-white images of the sampled targets. In its first few years of operation ChemCam has examined thousands of samples in the interest of determining the presence or history of water on Mars and the suitability of the surface for eventual human explorers. Sometime in 2020, an as-yet unnamed rover bearing a next-generation, souped-up ChemCam, called SuperCam, will join Opportunity and Curiosity on Mars’s dusty surface. What makes SuperCam super lies in both the Chem and the Cam. First, while ChemCam produces black-and-white images, SuperCam’s images will be in high-resolution color. Second, SuperCam will combine LIBS with Raman and infrared spectroscopy. for one Earth-year 254 days 280 days 365 days A compound image provided by ChemCam’s high-resolution camera shows a series of 1.4-millimeter-wide pits in the Martian surface soil formed by the instrument’s LIBS laser from a distance of 3 meters. Credit: ChemCam/LANL/IRAP/CNES