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ChemCam’s humble-looking spectrometers are a marvel

An unassuming artifact’s extraordinary purpose, explained
February 1, 2021
Given to the Bradbury Science Museum by Roger Wiens in 2012, this spectrometer is identical to the three currently traversing Mars as part of the Lab’s ChemCam instrument suite on the Curiosity rover.

Given to the Bradbury Science Museum by Roger Wiens in 2012, this spectrometer is identical to the three currently traversing Mars as part of the Lab’s ChemCam instrument suite on the Curiosity rover.

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In modern engineering, much of what matters can be invisible, indiscernible or simply unrecognizable to the casual observer. A first-rate example of this — a spectrometer designed for Curiosity rover’s exploration of Mars — is currently on display at the Bradbury Science Museum.

The rover itself is recognized around the world as a technological marvel. However, many of the individual components that comprise Curiosity’s Mars Science Laboratory are far less well known and might not even garner a second glance when spotted out of context.

For instance, the spectrometer above is, at first glance, an unpretentious item made of metal and mirrors, with a small circuit board attached to a handful of wires. No bigger than most cell phones, its humble appearance belies the impact it has had on the world’s understanding of the Earth’s closest neighbor.

Designed and built by scientists and engineers at Los Alamos, these spectrometers break down light into characteristic emission lines, the way a prism breaks sunlight into the colors of the rainbow. Those emission lines, called a spectrum, are captured on a charge-coupled device like the one in your own camera and show exactly what elements exist in various materials.

In short, these behind-the-scenes gizmos tell us what Mars rocks and soil are made of — from over 97 million miles away!

Learn more: "Los Alamos Technology on Mars" exhibit at the Bradbury Science Museum

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ChemCam spectrometers.

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Spectrometers within ChemCam body unit. Photo credit: NASA

 

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Mars rover Curiosity. Photo credit: NASA

For more information about the Bradbury’s artifact collections, please contact Collections Specialist Wendy Strohmeyer.