NASA's future Mars rover will be better equipped to find Martian life

NASA’s next Mars mission will feature high-impact science equipment

NASA says its next generation Mars rover, Curiosity, will feature X-ray equipment that will let it more rapidly identify areas on the red planet that may have supported life.

The Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the Curiosity which should launch as part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission in 2011 and land on the red planet by late 2012,  will identify the minerals in samples of powdered rock or soil that the rover's robotic arm will deliver to an input funnel.

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According to NASA, CheMin will use X-ray diffraction, what some call the gold standard for mineralogy, to identify minerals. Some minerals detectable by CheMin, such as phosphates, carbonates, sulfate and silica, can help preserve microbe biosignatures, NASA says. Other minerals that CheMin could detect might also have implications about past conditions favorable to life and to preservation of biosignatures, NASA stated.

The CheMin instrument is roughly a cube 10 inches on each side, weighing about 22 Lbs. It generates X-rays by aiming high-energy electrons at a target of cobalt, then directing the X-rays into a narrow beam. The detector is a charge-coupled device like the ones in electronic cameras, but sensitive to X-ray wavelengths and cooled to minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit, NASA said.

Curiosity's 10 science instruments are about 15 times heavier than the five-instrument payload on NASA's Mars rovers Spirit or Opportunity.  Some will provide quicker evaluations of rocks when the rover drives to a new location, helping the science team choose which rocks to examine more thoroughly with CheMin and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) experiment. SAM can identify organic compounds. Imaging information about the context and textures of rocks will augment information about the rocks' composition, NASA said.

NASA calls the laboratory, which is expected to operate for at least two years, the biggest astrobiology mission to Mars ever. The Mars Science Laboratory rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface, NASA said. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life.

Curiosity is a six-wheeled rover and each wheel has its own drive motor, and the corner wheels also have independent steering motors, NASA said.   Unlike earlier Mars rovers, Curiosity will also use its mobility system as a landing gear when the mission's rocket-powered descent stage lowers the rover directly onto the Martian surface on a tether.  NASA last week attached the wheels and a suspension system to Curiosity.

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