Mars Science Lab: The Tucson Connection

Alan Fischer of the Planetary Science Institute fills us in on the local connection to the Mars Science Laboratory and the Curiosity rover, which launched on Saturday:

With the Mars Science Laboratory speeding through space on its way to an expected August 2012 arrival at our neighboring planet, Planetary Science Institute researchers R. Aileen Yingst and David Vaniman are looking forward to seeing what the rover’s cameras and spectrometers will show.

During its planned lengthy surface mission, the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity will assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, a habitable environment able to support microbial life.

Yingst, a Senior Scientist at PSI, is Deputy Principal Investigator on MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) and a Co-Investigator on MARDI (Mars Descent Imager) and MastCam (Mast Camera).

“Curiosity is the first rover designed to be both field geologist and portable laboratory,” Yingst said. “It has many of the characteristics of other rovers, but it also has instruments that will allow it to look for evidence of carbon compounds in samples. This is something that your typical field geologist could only do in the lab.”

The MastCam will take color images and color video footage of the Martian terrain.

MAHLI will provide scientists with a close-up view of the minerals, textures and structures of Martian rocks and other surface materials.

MARDI will take color video during the rover’s descent toward the Martian surface.

“MAHLI will shine a magnifying glass on the Martian surface. It has the highest resolution for any mobile camera that has gone to Mars,” Yingst said. “Curiosity will use MAHLI to look at the physical characteristics of the small surface particles — on Earth we’d call it soil or dirt, on planets without organic activity we call it regolith. The shape and size of those particles, their texture, and how and whether they are sorted, all tell us something about what those little grains are, what type of rock they came from, and how they got there.”

Vaniman, a PSI Senior Scientist, is Deputy Principal Investigator for the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin), a combined X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument, and Co-Investigator on the ChemCam laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy and imaging instrument.

“ChemCam uses a laser to determine the chemical composition of spots less than one millimeter in diameter at ranges up to seven meters and a telescope to image the small craters that the laser made in the target,” Vaniman said. “This is a rapid and versatile way of determining which targets in near range are most important to approach and sample.”

Once a target is selected, Curiosity will approach it and use a variety of contact instruments, including a very accurate direct-contact chemical analysis system and the MAHLI “hand lens.” After contact analysis a sample can be drilled or scooped and delivered to one of two internal laboratories within the body of the rover, one of which is CheMin.

“CheMin uses X-ray diffraction to determine the mineralogy of the sample,” Vaniman said. “This is the first time that this powerful standard laboratory method of determining mineralogy will be used on another planet. Ability to measure fluoresced as well as diffracted X-rays makes CheMin especially versatile because it will determine both crystal structure and chemical composition.”

Curiosity’s ability to study its environment from the scale of kilometers to atoms makes it an extraordinarily capable system that will revolutionize our understanding of Mars.