The Curiosity rover’s power source and two of its scientific instruments are products of Los Alamos National Laboratory and its collaborators.
The Mars Space Laboratory, a space probe, landed a rover named Curiosity on Mars on August 6 of this year. Armed with scientific instruments, Curiosity will roam the Red Planet for one Martian year (23 months), investigating the planet’s environment. Scientists hope to learn whether Mars has or ever had conditions that could support microbial life.
Multi-mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator
An MMRTG, a nuclear battery, powers Curiosity and warms its instruments at night. The power source is a plutonium-238 (Pu-238) oxide in the form of 32 pellets like the one at left . The radioactive Pu-238 decays, releasing heat that is converted into electricity. RTGs are the byproduct of LANL’s work with nuclear weapons and its expertise in plutonium science, which NNSA declares has made Los Alamos the “center of plutonium excellence for the nation.” NASA has used RTGs for more than 30 years, sending them, for example, on the Cassini mission to Saturn and the New Horizons mission to Pluto. On October 4 of this year, the Los Alamos team that worked on the MMRTG—David Armstrong, Alejandro Enriquez, John Matonic, Diane Spengler, and Craig Van Pelt—received the Secretary of Energy’s Achievement Award for contributions to the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The Achievement Award is one of the Secretary’s suite of Honor Awards, called the DOE “Academy Awards.”
Chemistry and Camera
The ChemCam instrument, developed with the French Space Institute, uses a laser to vaporize a pinhead-size area of rock or soil. A telescope on Curiosity’s mast delivers the spectrum (colors) of light from the resulting flash to a spectrometer inside the rover so scientists can determine the sample’s elemental composition. ChemCam can quickly survey portions of the Martian environment, setting the stage for Curiosity’s robotic arm to gather physical samples from the most desirable locations displaying the most intriguing features. The laser can also reach otherwise inaccessible targets up to 23 feet away and on high vertical surfaces.
Chemistry and Mineralogy
CheMin uses a combination of x-ray diff raction and x-ray fluorescence to determine the mineral content of soil and powdered rock samples delivered to it by Curiosity’s robotic arm. The rover itself powders the rocks with a drill. Because different minerals form under different conditions, they are a record of the planet’s environmental history. CheMin’s analyses will help scientists study the role of water in the formation of Mars’ minerals, for example, by distinguishing between minerals that do or do not contain water in their crystal structure.
For more information about all LANL Mars instruments, see lanl.gov/science-innovation/science-features/mars-rover-powered-lanl-technology.php
For more information on ChemCam, see youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2F22B804DDA5ED44.
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