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From New Mexico to Mars

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The next generation Mars rover is equipped with a specialized laser that can vaporize rock from more than 20 feet away and survey the remnants from afar to determine whether the spot contains any signs of life.

And the team deciding which Martian rocks to zap to smithereens will often pull the trigger from New Mexico.

The ChemCam laser, developed by researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and put into use by scientists at the University of New Mexico, is one of several connections between the car-size rover named Curiosity and the Land of Enchantment. There will even be a piece of New Mexico along for the 354-million-mile ride. Rock from Socorro is stowed inside the rover to serve as a sample to ensure a second geologic instrument managed by a UNM-based team is working properly. That device will use X-rays to test what Mars rocks are made of on a larger scale.

“To be involved in this, it means that the people of New Mexico will have a real connection with this mission,” said Horton Newsom, a senior UNM researcher leading a

faculty-student team to help operate ChemCam. “I think it’s pretty darn important.”

Experts describe the vaporizing ChemCam laser as a light beam with the power of 1 million household light bulbs focused onto a spot the size of a pinhead. And it even makes an authentic “Zap!” sound each time it’s fired.

The “War of the Worlds” style laser, along with the X-ray sensor, will help scientists look for geologic proof of water. That find, experts say, is the first step to identifying whether microbial life has ever been possible on Mars.

“I think it’s an exciting mission. Finding life on another planet is one of the frontiers we have in exploration,” said UNM researcher Penny King, an investigator on the Alpha-Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, which analyzes rocks after they are pulled onto the rover.

The $2.5 billion NASA rover launches Friday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and is scheduled to land in August near the Red Planet’s equator. The landing spot is an area known as Gale Crater, a canyon half the size of New Mexico, where experts expect to find exposed layers of the Martian surface to study the planet’s evolutionary history. Curiosity is budgeted to operate at least two years but could crawl around Mars for more than 10 years, thanks to a nuclear-powered battery. NASA’s current Mars rover, Opportunity, has been exploring Mars for seven years.

Curiosity, however, will have dramatically better scientific tools, experts say. The 1-ton rover features an onboard science lab of 10 different cooperating experiments. The tools include new devices to study the atmosphere and minerals found on Mars, in addition to a drill, cameras and improvements over past instruments.

“The previous Mars landers observed things that they could not analyze very well,” Newsom said. “There are many questions we have right now before landing that we know we’ll be able to answer with vastly more-sophisticated instruments.”

For example, scientists have previously struggled to analyze conglomerate rocks held together by a variety of different elements. The new tools will help scientists differentiate among the geologic materials with pinpoint accuracy. New instruments will also be better than past tools at identifying water-based materials like hydrogen and oxygen.

The ChemCam laser will maximize the efficiency of the other instruments by working like a long-range tentacle to study the chemistry of surrounding areas and help the scientists determine where to send the slow-moving rover, traveling at a top speed of 10 feet per minute, said Los Alamos scientist Roger Wiens, ChemCam’s principal investigator. After rock is destroyed, the instrument will use light to determine what elements were there.

“It really does help with roving up close to something,” Wiens said of the laser, with a range of about 23 feet. “Once we’re in the area, then we can zap away at rocks around us and then figure out where do we really want to use the other experiments on the rover.”

The laser, developed at Los Alamos, will be jointly operated with a group of scientists in Toulouse, France, with input from researchers across the United States.

After the rover’s first 90 days on Mars, when all experiments will be operated from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., daily operation of the laser will shift to Los Alamos, Wiens said. The experiment could later be moved to a control center on campus at UNM to better accommodate the research of geologists there.

Because Martian days are longer than Earth’s, the planet’s daylight hours will shift from Earth’s schedule every 18 days. When Mars’ daylight cycle is in line with local daylight, the laser will be manned by crews in New Mexico. When the Mars daylight moves closer to Europe’s day, ChemCam will be operated by the French team.

“As far as I know, this is the very first instrument from New Mexico to go to the surface of Mars. That’s pretty exciting for me,” Wiens said.

But Curiosity is not New Mexico’s first connection to Mars. Previous rovers have operated with input from local geologist Larry Crumpler, with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

To fund the next generation of research on Mars, New Mexico scientists are slated to receive about $12 million from NASA over the next several years, Wiens said. Additional funding for UNM Mars research is coming from the Canadian government.

UNM students, including undergraduates, will have a hand in the research, Newsom said.

The opportunity to control a device on Mars while sitting at a desk at UNM is one that can inspire current and future students to pursue degrees in science, math and engineering, areas of expertise that are in high demand across the U.S., he said.

“What we’re doing with it is providing opportunities for the students to do truly spectacular things,” Newsom said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal