December 17, 2004

Los Alamos Laser to Be Launched to Mars

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) -- A laser developed by a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist will be aboard the Mars Science Laboratory to be launched to the red planet in 2009.

Roger Wiens said his "ChemCam" will can blast Martian rocks with a laser beam to determine what they are made of.

The mission planned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is planned as a followup to successful Mars Rovers, two robots now rolling across Mars' surface. The Mars lab is to arrive at its destination in 2010.

Wiens said Tuesday the Mars Science Laboratory will be larger that the current robots at nearly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

The ChemCam is designed to overcome a particular difficulty when working on Mars - dust.

To study the chemical composition of rocks and get to the underlying minerals, the current rovers must brush away the dust and another layer similar to the "desert varnish" found on rocks on Earth.

Wiens' device instead will use a laser that can blast a rock from up to 40 feet away, vaporizing a small amount of the underlying mineral. Then it collects light emitted by the vaporized rock to see what it's made of.

The technique, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, commonly is used in such things as determining the detailed contents of steel or finding dental cavities.

Wiens first suggested to NASA seven years ago that such a laser would be useful on Mars.

The new rover also will have other instruments for determining the chemical makeup of rocks, along with a number of cameras and an instrument to measure radiation levels on Mars' surface.