Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Roving update, 01.18.11

Almost one month ago, the Mars Rover Odyssey set a new working lifespan record on the red planet. Having landed in 2001, Odyssey set a new record on December 22, 2010 as the longest-serving spacecraft on Mars. It surpassed the previous record set by the Mars Global Surveyor, another NASA spacecraft that orbited Mars for almost a decade, ending in 2006.

Odyssey has been highly valued by NASA, as it is utilized to create the most detailed maps that have ever been made of Mars. Evidence collected by Odyssey prompted the Phoenix Lander mission in 2008, which confirmed the presence of frozen water just beneath the Martian surface, theorized by hydrogen readings gleaned from Odyssey. Odyssey has also been used to gather data that will assist NASA with planning a manned mission to Mars in the future.

 Odyssey is certainly not the only star of the show, though. Recent findings by the previously mentioned Phoenix Lander have caused some astronomers to breathe a huge sigh of relief, thirty years in the waiting. Soil tests made in 2008 by Phoenix have not only cleared up a supposed chemical waste disposal oversight, but have also confirmed the presence of organics in the Martian soil. In 1976, NASA’s Viking Mars Landers reported the presence of chloromethane and dichloromethane, a story Thronateeska reported on in its September 10, 2010 issue of the Word from the Wetherbee. The situation arose through the discovery of two chemicals—chloromethane and dichloromethane—classified as organics, which were previously thought to be contaminates when they were found in Martian soil. The Phoenix Lander is causing scientists to reexamine the discovery of these two chemicals through the consideration of another chemical—perchlorate—that has been found to destroy the evidence of the two organics. By heating the perchlorate, it becomes a strong oxidant and destroys the other chemicals, which means NASA could have had evidence of life over 30 years ago but missed it.

This is especially good news for present and future rovers that will be sent to the red planet. Take, for example, NASA’s Mars Opportunity. It is gleaning preliminary information about the mineral deposits around it before it even has to conduct any experiments on its own, a huge time-saving device. How, you ask? It is actually having information relayed to it from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is making use of a mineral-mapping instrument know as the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM). The CRISM, riding 150 miles above Mars on board the Reconnaissance Orbiter, is able to analyze the ground surface of Mars and send back detailed information to the rover regarding specific mineral deposits. Every known element has its own frequency on the light spectrum, and the CRISM analyzes the light spectrum it “sees” to let Opportunity know where to start digging before it even has to move. Therefore, Opportunity is not aimlessly roaming about, conducting experiments that are more likely to glean promising results. It is almost like CRISM is telling Opportunity when it is “getting warmer” as it approaches specific mineral deposits. According to NASA, CRISM is able, despite its great height from Mars, to provide Opportunity with mineral maps as small as a tennis court.

 Advances like this will take further leaps and bounds when Curiosity, the next Mars rover, is launched later this year. Curiosity is equipped with the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, a device which, believe it or not, zaps rocks with lasers. Like something out of a science fiction movie, Curiosity will go roaming about Mars conducting much of its research by shooting the rocks around it with a pin-head sized laser beam, the point being that the resulting “pouf” of dust will emit the minerals inherent in the soil, and its light spectrum can be captured and analyzed. A much faster method than digging and baking sample upon sample of soil, the ChemCam is capable of detecting 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light, and all from a laser the size of a cigar, which “drills” a hole with megawatts of energy per square millimeter in just a few nanoseconds, also providing much faster and wide-ranging results. Curiosity will be able to “shoot” its laser at samples up to 23 feet away, and will further enable the rover to make better “decisions” about where it should go dig by providing it with a more detailed chemical overview of the soil types surrounding it. The ChemCam is pictured below, undergoing a laboratory test.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL.

Credit: NASANews, NASA JPL.

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