Photon Gun Provides Mars Rover Hands-Free Identification

""The ChemCam instrument has completed the first short leg of its long trip to Mars, arriving at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from Los Alamos National Laboratory for installation aboard the next Mars rover, due to launch in late 2011. The NASA Mars Science Laboratory project's rover, named Curiosity, will carry the newly delivered laser instrument to reveal which elements are present in Mars' rocks and soils up to 7 meters (23 feet) away from the rover.

By firing intense pulses of laser light at distant targets, the ChemCam instrument uses a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) to measure the chemical content of the target samples. The laser beam vaporizes a pinhead-sized area on the target. A spectral analyzer then peers closely at the flash of light from the vaporized sample. Atoms ablated in ionized states emit light and each sample yields spectral emissions at unique wavelengths, revealing the elements present in the material.

Like fingerprints, the emission line wavelengths can be matched to a library of known chemical compounds. Even dust-covered rocks will reveal their inner secrets to the ChemCam interrogation. On such samples, the laser first cleans away the dust or weathering coatings before performing the rock analysis. There is no need to drive the rover to within reach of the target rock.

ChemCam is the first instrument of its kind. "We brought together a lot of new ideas to make this instrument a reality. It has been exciting to see this invention come together," said Los Alamos National Laboratory's scientist Roger Wiens, the instrument's principal investigator.

The goal of Curiosity, a rolling laboratory, is to assess whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life and conditions favorable for preserving clues about life, if it existed. Curiosity is by far the biggest and most capable robot ever destined for Mars. It is nuclear-powered and comparable in size to a small car. The capsule that will be used to carry the rover into the Mars atmosphere is even larger than the Apollo capsule that housed three astronauts for missions to the moon. ChemCam is one of 10 instrument packages contained on the rover. The other instruments are capable of identifying minerals, sniffing out organic materials, observing the weather and radiation environment, and drilling several centimeters into the Martian rocks.

The ChemCam instrument was conceived, designed, and built by a U.S.-French team, led by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and France's Centre for the Study of Radiation and space agency, Centre National d'√Čtudes Spatiales.

Curiosity is due to launch from Florida in November of 2011 and is expected to arrive at Mars in August 2012.

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