High Marks on Mars: Curiosity’s Canadian Connection
Wednesday, October 10th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
Canada is getting high marks on Mars. (Natch. Expected nothing less.)
The Canadian-made Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer — one of the key instruments on the marvelous Mars Curiosity rover — recently passed its first test drive by Team APXS scientists at the University of Guelph, Ontario.
Researchers from the University and the Canadian Space Agency designed and watched over the building of the APXS tool, which will be used to test the elemental composition of target rocks on the surface as the rover seeks evidence of life — past or present — on the Red Planet.
It’s pretty important, then, that it works well, and the initial report sounds great. “We’re getting excellent resolution, just as good as we saw in tests on Earth under ideal conditions,” APXS principal investigator Raif Gellert told NASA. While everyone is anxious to get on with the mission at hand, all of the parts of Curiosity first have to be flexed and assessed.
For APXS, that meant taking atmospheric readings and using the instrument on a solid target. Alas, the target was not something on Mars, but a calibration target brought from Earth made of basaitic rock surrounded by a nickel plate. (It’s a kind of apples-to-apples thing that scientists like to do, to make sure the readings are right. Patient, those scientists.)
While the X-ray sensors work best cold, daytime tests produced “clean data for identifying elements in the target,” according to NASA. (A day on Mars, by the way, is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than an Earth day.)
“The good news is that we can now make high-resolution measurements even at high Noon to support quick decisions about whether a sample is worthwhile for future investigations,” Gellert told NASA.
The tests were done on the 34th Martian day of what is hoped to be a two-year mission. The APXS is one of 10 scientific instruments in the Curiosity lab toolbox that will be used to determine if environmental conditions in the mission project area inside Gale Crater were ever favorable to microbial life.
APXS is on the mobile science laboratory’s robotic arm. The Canadian Space Agency has described the instrument as “roughly about the size and shape of a Rubik’s cube,” that bombards target rock or soil alpha particles with X-rays, then studies the energy put off by the target in response to determine its properties.
Two days before the calibration test, Curiosity’s mast camera was used to take a look at the APXS to make sure it had not become caked with Martian dust during its controlled crash landing back in August.
The image of the APXS with the Mars landscape in the background was released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the entire multinational exploration project. Color in the image was enhanced by scientists to show the Martian scene as it would appear under the lighting conditions on Earth, which helps as operators analyze the terrain.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.