Curiosity – Science from ChemCam

Coronation Spectrum
ChemCam Spectrum from the Rock Named Coronation
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / LANL / CNES / IRAP

Earlier this week, Curiosity used its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) to record the ultraviolet (UV), violet, visible and near-infrared spectra from a rock called Coronation. The rock was bombarded with 30 laser pulses, and the light recorded by three spectrometers.

Viewing the enlarged image, minor elements titanium and manganese show in the insert on the left in the 398-to-404-nanometer range, and Hydrogen shows up in the right hand insert with carbon (from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere). Hydrogen was only present in the first laser shot, indicating it was present only in the surface material.

The preliminary analysis shows the rock to probably be basalt, a common volcanic rock on Mars. Coronation is about 8 centimeters across and was located about 1.5 meters from Curiosity (prior to its drive yesterday).

Curiosity – Laser Beam and the ChemCam

Laser Beam and ChemCam Explore the Chemistry of Mars Rock
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / LANL / CNES / IRAP

Two sols ago, Curiosity fired its laser at the fist sized rock called “Coronation”, ChemCam (Chemistry Camera) recorded the light from the elements vaporized by the laser and analyzed it with three spectrometers. The small square in the image is 8 mm across.

One question that this test will answer is whether the composition of the vaporized rock changed during the sequence of 30 laser pulses. If so, it could indicate that there was dust on the surface prior to the rock beneath being vaporized.

ChemCam is the first instrument capable of analyzing the elemental make up of material on Mars. Previous instruments on Spirit and Opportunity could take spectral data of rock minerals in the infrared and with alpha particle scattering and X-rays:

  • Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES)
  • Mössbauer Spectrometer (MB)
  • Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS)

Curiosity is also equipped with an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer.

ChemCam was developed, built and tested by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in partnership with scientists and engineers funded by France’s national space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and research agency, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

Below is the first image showing the extension of the robotic arm. The 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) arm maneuvers a turret of tools including a camera, a drill, a spectrometer, a scoop and mechanisms for sieving and portioning samples of powdered rock and soil.

Robot Arm
Robotic Arm on Curiosity Extended for the First Time on Mars
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Prepares for the Big Show

Schematic of the Mars Curiosity Rover
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-CalTech

The next Mars science rover is taking shape at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Curiosity, technically known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), was named by Clara Ma, who said:

I selected the name Curiosity and I chose that name because I was really curious about space and our planets and our solar system and I wanted to learn more about it.

The Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to launch between 25 November and 18 December 2011 aboard an Atlas V 541 and land on the Red Planet in August of 2012. Today, 23 July 2010, Curiosity took its first drive, and the video can be seen here.

Curiosity, unlike the current Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (operating on solar panels), will carry a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay. This will give Curiosity the ability to move without consideration of the time of year (winter on Mars means limited solar power). It will enhance the science payload and allow for the exploration of a much larger range of latitudes and altitudes.

Since the two previous Mars rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) have been so successful (operating for more than ten times the 90 day warranty), three of the key elements of the MSL mission are technological:

  • Demonstrate the ability to land a very large, heavy rover to the surface of Mars (which could be used for a future Mars Sample Return mission that would collect rocks and soils and send them back to Earth for laboratory analysis)
  • Demonstrate the ability to land more precisely in a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) landing circle
  • Demonstrate long-range mobility on the surface of the red planet (5-20 kilometers or about 3 to 12 miles) for the collection of more diverse samples and studies.

These are elements that will become increasingly important as we approach sending manned missions the Phobos, and later to Mars itself.

Curiosity on Mars
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The instruments aboard the MSL are designed to accomplish a set of Mission Objectives:

  • Cameras
  • Mast Camera (Mastcam)
  • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)
  • Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)
  • Spectrometers
  • Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS)
  • Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam)
  • Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin)
  • Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite
  • Radiation Detectors
  • Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD)
  • Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)
  • Environmental Sensors
  • Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS)
  • Atmospheric Sensors
  • Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI)

Mission Objectives

  • Biological objectives:
  • Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds
  • Inventory the chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur)
  • Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes
  • Geological and geochemical objectives:
  • Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the martian surface and near-surface geological materials
  • Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils
  • Planetary process objectives:
  • Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) atmospheric evolution processes
  • Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide
  • Surface radiation objective:
  • Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic cosmic radiation, solar proton events, and secondary neutrons

Following a heat-shield descent through the Martian atmosphere and a parachute descent, the Mars Science Laboratory will complete its descent under the rocket powered Sky Crane:

Curiosity Sky Crane
Curiosity Descending Under the Sky Crane
Image Credit: NASA

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.

Cassini and Saturn

Cassini Orbital Insertion
Credit: NASA, JPL, CIT

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft was the fourth mission to observe Saturn. Previously, Saturn was visited by Pioneer 11 in September 1979, Voyager 1 in November 1980 and Voyager 2 in August 1981.

Cassini has seven primary objectives:

  • Determine the three-dimensional structure and dynamic behavior of the rings of Saturn
  • Determine the composition of the satellite surfaces and the geological history of each object
  • Determine the nature and origin of the dark material on Iapetus’s leading hemisphere
  • Measure the three-dimensional structure and dynamic behavior of the magnetosphere
  • Study the dynamic behavior of Saturn’s atmosphere at cloud level
  • Study the time variability of Titan’s clouds and hazes
  • Characterize Titan’s surface on a regional scale

Cassini is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Cassini mission for NASA

Mission Instruments:

  • The Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) searches for heat and is capable of discerning an object’s composition. “What’s cool is that CIRS can tell us how hot something is and what’s in it — like finding out that there’s a hot bowl of soup over there and that it’s chicken noodle, not tomato” explains Dr. Glenn Orton, a senior research scientist and CIRS co-investigator.
  • the Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) consists of a wide-angle camera and a narrow-angle camera. The narrow-angle camera provides high-resolution images of targets of interest, while the wide-angle camera allows more extended spatial coverage at lower resolution.
  • Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) is a box of four telescopes that can see ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet (UV) light, known as the cause of sunburn on Earth, is invisible to the human eye.
  • The Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) onboard the Cassini spacecraft is made up of two cameras in one: one is used to measure visible wavelengths, the other infrared. Combined, the two cameras gather a lot of information on the composition of moon surfaces, the rings, and the atmospheres of Saturn and Titan.
  • The Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) measures the energy and electrical charge of particles such as electrons and protons, and studies the composition, density, flow, velocity, and temperature of ions and electrons in Saturn’s magnetosphere.
  • The Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) is capable of detecting the impact of tiny particles — 1/1,000 of a millimeter wide. Giovanni Cassini was the first astronomer to recognize this dust in interplanetary space, and its presence around the sun, through telescopic observations in the 17th century. Revealing the origins of this cosmic dust, its composition and how it may affect life on Earth has been an ongoing focus of research and exploration ever since.
  • The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) is collecting data to determine the composition and structure of positive ions and neutral particles in the upper atmosphere of Titan and the magnetosphere of Saturn.
  • The Magnetometer (MAG) measures the strength and direction of Saturn’s magnetic field near the spacecraft. “The coolest thing about the magnetometer is that it allows you to ‘see’ inside planets such as Saturn and moons such as Enceladus,” says Marcia Burton, investigation scientist for the Cassini magnetometer and the Cassini Magnetospheric Discipline Scientist. “By measuring the magnetic field very accurately we can determine the size of Saturn’s core.”
  • The Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument (MIMI) is designed to measure the composition, charge state and energy distribution of energetic ions and electrons; detect fast neutral particles; and conduct remote imaging of Saturn’s magnetosphere. The information gathered is used to study the overall configuration and dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interactions with the solar wind, Saturn’s atmosphere, rings, and icy moons, and Titan.
  • The Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument receives and measures the radio signals coming from Saturn, including the radio waves given off by the interaction of the solar wind with Saturn and Titan.
  • Radar (RADAR) takes pictures like a camera but it “sees” using microwaves instead of light. It measures how objects reflect microwaves, which tells scientists something about how rough they are, or how they would conduct electricity.
  • The Radio Science (RSS) instrument is designed to take measurements using radio waves beamed to Earth. “Our instrument can measure exactly how well you could hear somebody talking, and the quality of the sound traveling through whatever is between you and the speaker,” explains Sami Asmar, RSS task leader. “By studying the changes in your voice as it goes through various materials, we’d learn information on the composition and characteristics of the door or the curtain behind which you’d be talking. For us, the materials are the rings of Saturn or the planet’s atmosphere.”
Credit: NASA, JPL

Cassini Animation
Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft Animation
Credit: NASA, JPL

(UVIS) Ultraviolet Image of Saturn’s
A Ring From the Inside Out
Credit: NASA, JPL

(MAG) Saturn’s Magnetic Field Lines
Credit: NASA, JPL

The international Cassini spacecraft mission left Earth bound for Saturn atop an Air Force Titan IV/B Centaur rocket on October 15, 1997 at 4:43 a.m. EDT (1:43 a.m. PDT) from Cape Canaveral, FL.

The first major milestone for the Cassini program was accomplished successfully on 9 November 1997 when Cassini spacecraft controllers performed the spacecraft’s first planned trajectory correction maneuver. The maneuver required an adjustment of only 2.7 meters per second (about 8 feet per second) to fine-tune the spacecraft’s flightpath.

Mission analysts designed a unique trajectory which involved gravity-assists from Venus, Earth, and Jupiter. The spacecraft arrived at Saturn in July 2004. On 26 October 2004, Cassini made its first close pass by Titan.

On 24 December 2004, the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe successfully detached from NASA’s Cassini orbiter today to begin a three-week journey to Saturn’s moon Titan. Huygens successfully landed on Titan on January 14, 2005.

Current information on the Cassini mission and its exploration of Saturn and its moons can be found here.

Look here for the primary events for Cassini in 2010.

MESSENGER and Mercury

Mercury imaged by MESSENGER
Credit: NASA, CIE, APL

Mercury has been visited only once prior to the MESSENGER spacecraft, which is now on its way toward orbiting the inner-most planet. Between 1974 and 1975, Mariner 10 mapped about 45% of the surface of Mercury. It was launched on November 3, 1973 and flew past Venus for observations and a gravity assist to guide it toward Mercury.

Observations of Mariner 10’s three flybys of Mercury showed it to be the densest planet among four rocky inner Solar System planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars). Mercury has the oldest surface, it has the largest daily variations in surface temperature, and it is the least explored. Understanding the evolution of the Solar System requires understanding the extreme characteristics of Mercury.

The mission is designed to research six key questions:


MESSENGER is a joint venture between NASA, the Carnegie Institution for Science (CIE) and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University.

The MESSENGER spacecraft carries eight instruments for studying Mercury:

  • The Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) MDIS has a wide-angle and a narrow-angle camera, which will be used to photograph Mercury’s surface in monochrome, color, and stereo.
  • The Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (GRNS) will look for geologically important elements such as hydrogen, magnesium, silicon, oxygen, iron, titanium, sodium, and calcium. These elements emit gamma rays and neutrons when struck by cosmic rays. GRNS may also detect naturally radioactive elements such as potassium, thorium, and uranium.
  • The X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS) detects X-ray emissions from magnesium, aluminum, silicon, sulfur, calcium, titanium, and iron.
  • The Magnetometer (MAG) will measure the magnetic field’s precise strength and how it varies with position and altitude, and ultimately help determine the source of Mercury’s magnetic field.
  • The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA) will use an infrared laser transmitter and a receiver to map Mercury’s landforms and other surface characteristics. The data will also be used to track the planet’s slight, forced libration, which will tell researchers about the state of Mercury’s core.
  • The Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS) will measure the abundance of atmospheric gases around Mercury and detect minerals in its surface materials.
  • The Energetic Particle and Plasma Spectrometer (EPPS) will measure the mix and characteristics of charged particles in and around Mercury’s magnetosphere using an Energetic Particle Spectrometer (EPS) and a Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer (FIPS).
  • Radio Science (RS). The Deep Space Network (DSN) will precisely measure MESSENGER’s speed and distance from Earth. Scientists and engineers will observe changes in MESSENGER’s movements at Mercury in order to measure the planet’s gravity field, and to support the laser altimeter investigation to determine the size and condition of Mercury’s core.

MESSENGER Spacecraft
MESSENGER Spacecraft
Credit: NASA, CIE, APL

MESSENGER Instruments
Science Instruments Spacecraft
Credit: NASA, CIE, APL

MESSENGER Trajectory
MESSENGER trajectory through the Solar System
Credit: NASA, CIE, APL

The spacecraft launched on August 3, 2004, aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

MESSENGER will travel more than six and a half years before it begins to orbit Mercury in March 2011. This journey includes a flyby of Earth (in August 2005), two flybys of Venus (October 2006 and June 2007) and three flybys of Mercury (January 2008, October 2008 and September 2009).

Visit the Mission Design section for details on MESSENGER’s journey.

There have already been extensive publications covering the scientific research from MESSENGER.