Why Mars rover will be blasting its heat ray as it searches for life
The Mars rover Curiosity, which is due on the Red Planet next week, is outfitted with an infrared laser and telescope package called ChemCam that will vaporize bits of rock to study its chemical makeup.
In less than a week, a machine from another planet will arrive on an alien world, soon to start zeroing in on targets and zapping them with its heat ray.Skip to next paragraph
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War of the Worlds? Not quite.
It's the Mars rover Curiosity, the robotic star of NASA's $2.5-billion Mars Science Laboratory mission. Any zapping serves to answer a question that has captured the imagination of generations of scientists and the public: Has Mars ever hosted life?
IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars
Curiosity is slated to arrive on Mars early in the morning Eastern time on Aug. 6. If the landing goes well, Curiosity will explore the red planet's Gale Crater and its imposing Mt. Sharp. Both show tantalizing geological evidence that the dent in Mars' surface once might have sported environments capable of supporting at least simple forms of life.
The story is written in the chemical make-up of the rocks Curiosity examines. And a first cut at determining which rocks to drive to for analyzing in detail will be made from information gathered by ChemCam, an infrared laser and telescope package that sits atop Curiosity's extendable "neck."
The device, one of 10 science instruments on the rover, also will be hunting for water, either bound up in minerals or as ices in the soil Curiosity traverses. Researchers have identified water as a key requirement for the emergence and survival of life as they've come to know it on Earth.
ChemCam's approach, using a laser and mini telescope to identify atoms present in a distant object, already has found wide use on Earth in situations that would be dangerous for humans, says Darby Dyar, an astronomer at Mt. Holyoke College in Hadley, Mass., and a member of the ChemCam team.
Nuclear-power-plant operators use similar technology as a kind of fuel gauge for the uranium-oxide fuel rods in commercial nuclear reactors. The rods' composition changes as they are used up, she explains. Archaeologists have used the technique to identify the composition of artifacts. Scrap-metal recyclers use it to identify the types of steel they receive. And security specialists are eying it as a tool that could help screen for explosives at airports and along US borders.
The technology was adapted for space missions by a team led by Los Alamos National Laboratory geochemist Roger Wiens, ChemCam's lead scientist. The Mars Science Laboratory's mission marks the instrument's maiden flight.
On Mars, ChemCam represents the Annie Oakley among the rover's science packages. It can place its powerful laser beam on a spot the size of a period on a printed page at 23 feet – farther in the lab, Dr. Dyar acknowledges, but for Mars, 23 feet will do.