December 6, 2013
NASA Runs Three Mass Spectrometers In Three Different Places In Space
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
The mass spectrometers are designed to take in atmospheric, rock or soil samples and identify particular molecules in them. The instruments help identify gases in atmospheric samples or gases that get released from rock or soil samples as they are processed.
“At the moon and Mars and part way in between, we had three mass spectrometers happily operating in their other-worldly environments or being checked out for the first time in space on the same day,” Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for the instruments, said in a statement.
NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) entered equatorial orbit around the moon on November 20 and began science operations the following day. The space agency said that LADEE’s Neutral Mass Spectrometer was checking out the moon’s thin atmosphere on December 4, the same day the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and Curiosity missions were using their spectrometers.
MAVEN launched on November 18 and is currently en route to Mars, where it is expected to arrive sometime in September 2014. The mission’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer was turned on for the first time on Wednesday, allowing engineers to measure calibration gases in the instrument.
The spacecraft’s spectrometer will be used to study Mars’ upper atmosphere, helping to unlock secrets of the Red Planet’s past. The instrument will be examining Mars’ composition and determining how quickly some of the gases are escaping into space over time. Scientists will be able to use this data to better understand what the Martian atmosphere looked like billions of years ago and how it was lost.
Curiosity carries the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, which has been analyzing multiple samples of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and soils and rocks. In September, scientists wrote in the journal Science that Curiosity’s spectrometer was able to sniff out water on Mars. The researchers said the rover’s first scoop of soil contained fine materials that were several percent water by weight.
Instruments like spectrometers are critical in helping scientists learn more about the worlds beyond our own.
“With these studies, mass spectrometry is helping us piece together the histories of the moon and Mars and offers a vision of their futures,” said Mahaffy. “It’s a perfect example of how invaluable these instruments are for space science.”