In the fall of 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory will embark on the next phase of NASA's Mars Exploration program, a robotic exploration in search of signs of life on Mars.
An array of advanced systems will collect rock and soil samples, analyzing minerals and elemental composition in search of evidence of water and ice in the geologic history of the Red Planet.
Searching for the building blocks of life, the mission will use a group of instruments to identify unique biosignatures and the isotopic composition of inorganic and organic carbon, particular elemental and mineralogical concentrations and abundances, and the attributes of unusual rock textures.
One tool, called the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, will analyze rock and soil samples by exposing the materials to alpha particles and X-rays emitted during the radioactive decay of the element curium.
Detectors will measure the energy released by emitting X-rays and enable scientists to identify elements present in the samples. Used in conjunction with other instruments on board the rover, such as the CheMin, the tests will help scientists understand what the materials are, how they were formed, and if it was later altered by wind, water, or ice.
Realistic color images and color high-definition video footage at 10 frames per second will be captured by the Mast Camera, a two-camera system that protrudes upward from the rover.
With a medium-resolution camera capable of viewing its immediate surrounding, as well as a high-resolution lens used to study the landscape far from the rover, the images from the Mast Camera will eventually be used to produce panoramas of the Martian landscape.
Laser-Induced Remote Sensing for Chemistry and Micro-Imaging instrument
The ChemCam will fire a laser from the rover toward rock and soil targets up to 9 meters away, vaporizing materials from a 1 millimeter area and analyzing the atomic composition of the targets' surfaces. The vaporized material, a plasma of hot gas made of free-floating ions and electrons, will be analyzed by the onboard spectrograph.
Although most of the instruments aboard the rover will be pointed toward the ground busily analyzing the rocks and soil beneath the vehicle, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) will be looking skyward.
Silicon detectors and a crystal of cesium iodide will measure galactic cosmic rays and solar particles that pass through the Martian atmosphere, including protons, energetic ions of various elements, neutrons, and gamma rays.
In addition to measuring how radiation has affected the chemical and isotopic composition of Martian rocks and soils, the measurements taken by RAD are particularly important to the future of human settlement on Mars because they should help NASA understand how the atmospheric conditions and radiation from space could affect human health on the planet.
CheMin, the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument, will help scientists understand the minerals present on Mars and give a better understanding of the environmental conditions that existed during the time they were formed.
Different minerals are linked to certain kinds of environments, and understanding the formation of mineral crystal structures can identify the presence of water and other elements necessary for life.
Using a scoop to collect rock and soil, and then drilling into the rock samples, the CheMin will direct a beam of X-rays through the dust. All minerals diffract X-rays in a characteristic pattern, and all elements emit X-rays with a unique set of energy levels allowing scientists to identify the crystalline structure of each material the rover encounters.
The Mars Hand Lens Imager will provide realistic, close-up views of microbial-size features of rock found on Mars. The 4-centimeter-wide camera will take color images of features as small as 12.5 micrometers and send the images back to Earth, giving scientists a close-up view of the textures and structures of the rock and dust found on Mars.
Neutrons escaping from the planet's surface can be a sign of the presence of water and ice, and researchers are using a tool called the Detector of Albedo Neutrons, or DAN, on the Mars Science Laboratory rover to search for them.
Cosmic rays bombarding the planet from space knock neutrons in soils and rocks out of their atomic orbits, and hydrogen atoms present in liquid or frozen water slow the movement of these neutrons. DAN detects the slowed neutron, which may signal the presence of water or ice.
A weather-monitoring station, contributed by the Spanish government and called the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, will essentially function as the Martian weather station. It will record pressure, humidity, and ultraviolet radiation at the Martian surface, as well as wind speed and direction, air temperature, and ground temperature around the rover.