|With the successful launch of the Mars Science Laboratory on Saturday, Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers and scientists from the French space institute IRAP are poised to begin focusing the energy of a million light bulbs on the surface of the red planet to help determine whether Mars was or is habitable.|
The international team of space explorers that launched the Mars Science Laboratory last week is relying in part on an instrument originally developed at Los Alamos called ChemCam, which will use blasts of laser energy to remotely probe Mars’s surface. The robust ChemCam system is one of 10 instruments mounted on the mission’s Curiosity rover.
|When ChemCam fires its extremely powerful laser pulse, it will vaporize an area the size of a pinhead. The system’s telescope will peer at the flash of glowing plasma created by the vaporized material and record the colors of light contained within it. These spectral colors will then be interpreted by a spectrometer, enabling scientists to determine the elemental composition of the vaporized material.|
| ChemCam can deliver multiple pulses in extremely rapid succession to a single area or quickly zap multiple areas, providing researchers with great versatility for sampling the surface of the planet. ChemCam is designed to look for lighter elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, all of which are crucial for life. The system can provide immediate, unambiguous detection of water from frost or other sources on the surface as well as carbon—a basic building block of life as well as a possible byproduct of life.|