LANL Builds SuperCam For Latest Mars Rover

A rendering of NASA’s Perseverance rover. Courtesy/NASA/JPL-Caltech

SuperCam Lead Scientist Roger Wiens

By BONNIE J. GORDON
Los Alamos Daily Post
bjgordon@ladailypost.com

Roger Wiens is Los Alamos National Laboratory’s lead scientist on SuperCam, the instrument that sits atop the new Mars Rover Perseverance. He spoke with the Los Alamos Daily Post Monday about LANL’s role developing Supercam and the mission of the new Mars rover. Perseverance launched this morning at 6 a.m. on its journey to Mars. It will land Feb.18, 2021.

Perseverance joins NASA’s Curiosity Rover, launched about nine years ago, which continues to send data home. SuperCam is the next generation of the instrument ChemCam, which sits atop Curiosity.

“Perseverance has a one-Mars-year ‘warranty’, but we expect it to last a lot longer,” Wiens said, referring to the fact that the rover’s systems were designed to last at least a Mars year, which is 687 Earth days long.

Those involved with the project refer to SuperCam as a “Swiss Army Knife” because it packs many tools into a small package, Wiens said. While ChemCam has one rock-zapping laser beam, SuperCam has two different types of beams coming from the same laser.

“It can change the wavelength of the laser,” Wiens said.

He quipped that the laser has red and green beams in honor of New Mexico’s state question.

“SuperCam uses an infrared laser beam to vaporize small spots on rocks. It uses a green laser beam to make organic materials and certain minerals glow briefly. It’s another way to study mineralogy. Mineralogy can tell us about the past climate of Mars. Rock materials ‘weather’ or change into clay minerals in water. The minerology will tell us what happened.”

Why all this interest in water? Because it means that Mars had a habitable environment. Now that scientists know water existed on Mars, their focus is turning toward whether this habitable planet was once inhabited by micro-organisms, Wiens said.
Perseverance will land in the Jezero Crater, chosen because it was once a lake.

“It has a beautiful delta feature that shows meanders and flow channels,” Wiens said. “It’s a great place to look for nutrients.”
The main goal of the mission is to collect samples and this historic launch could lead to the first round trip from Earth to Mars and back. How will it work? Just like it did in the film “The Martian”, Wiens said, only with small samples instead of humans.

“Perseverance will use a hollow drill to collect drill cores encased in metal tubes and drop them on the ground in a specific location,” he explained. “A rocket would then blast the samples into a low orbit around Mars. Another space craft would rendezvous with the samples and bring them back to Earth.”

The missions to launch the samples into Mars orbit and bring them back to Earth are not started yet, but NASA is considering them for the near future. What else is exciting about Perseverance? It will also feature the first scientific microphone to ever operate on Mars. It will listen to the zapping sound of the laser impacts to tell how hard the rocks are. Also, it can measure wind speed and direction and can measure the speed of sound for the first time on another planet.

“It’s so cool,” Wiens said, obviously delighted. “Of course we had to justify it scientifically as well.”

More cool stuff includes the SHERLOC instrument on the arm of the rover, which will use UV laser-induced fluorescence to search for organic molecules that might be signs of life. SHERLOC does very fine-scale work and the detail will allow LANL scientists to look for microscopic organic materials, Wiens said. LANL staff assembled and tested SHERLOC’s detector and some of its electronics. The rest of the instrument was developed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“More than 100 different people at LANL worked on SuperCam,” he said. “Everyone can be proud of the Lab’s accomplishment. It’s gratifying to follow ChemCam with another mission. It’s the wave of the future…Once we get samples coming back we’ll have a better idea when someone might set foot on Mars.”

SuperCam is a collaboration between LANL and a number of research institutes and universities in France, Spain and Denmark.

Now that’s cool.

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