There are many reasons to be excited about the Mars Curiosity rover/mission launched by NASA today (November 26, 2011). The purpose of this column is to make notice of gadgets – and Curiosity carries ten of these for use on the surface of the Mars. We hope to cover the remainder in another column.
NASA offers almost full coverage of all these gadgets/instruments on the NASA/JPL Mars Exploration Rovers/Instruments web page/tool. We say almost full coverage as the highly noted “ChemCam” does not seem to be listed amongst those instruments. We shall report back if we find that notice. It may be a reference to the combination of the PanCam with the Mössbauer Spectrometer.
The PanCam (Panoramic Camera) and the Mast Assembly (PMA) appear to be absolutely essential to many of the spectral gadgets/imaging instruments taken on board. The PanCam is capable of a full 360° rotation and 180° lift. It has the best color imaging of any such device so far sent on one of these missions. It is important to the operation of the Mössbauer Spectrometer, the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and the Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES).
These are all supported by the highly articulate robotic “arm” of the rover. The Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) is an infrared spectrometer of quite a small size (just under 5 pounds!). The Mini-TES can see and study the planet’s sediments and soils – one of its priorities is to search for clays and carbonates. The Mössbauer Spectrometer is a special device of high-accuracy designed to search for “iron-bearing minerals”.
The APXS mission is to measure elemental chemicals in the planet’s material. Some or most of these should have some form of radioactive decay and generate alpha particles. The APXS will be used to measure and study these to help determine and identify these elements. A microscopic imager (a microscope with a CCD) will also be on board. The arm will also carry a grinder known as the Rock Abrasion Tool (with the unfortunate acronym RAT).
The abrader will grind into the hard surfaces of material like rocks in order for spectroscopic measurements and microscopy to observe the interior structures. It is believed that over time some rocks and minerals will have accumulated dust and other minerals on their surfaces. Speaking of dust – we believe that NASA has tested these devices to survive dust storms! Other reliability tests included drop tests, drive tests and load tests. To navigate and observe the hazards of the Martian “roads” the Curiosity has been supplied with six other cameras.