mars curiosity rover

Mars rover 2020 to get a ‘SuperCam’ designed to search for signs of life

The latest iteration of Nasa’s Mars rover, set to be launched in 2020, will feature a new ‘SuperCam’ that is capable of detecting carbon-based signatures of organic materials, a possible sign of life on the Red Planet.

The earlier Curiosity rover (pictured above), which is currently roaming the surface of Mars, is equipped with a ‘ChemCam’ which is designed to capture the chemical makeup of its surroundings with a specially designed laser system.

It is the most powerful laser to operate on the surface of another planet and the burst of infrared light it fires lasts only a few billionths of seconds, but it is powerful enough to vaporize the spot it hits at more than 8,000°C.

Even from a distance, the ChemCam can examine rocks and soil using a process called Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), where laser bursts atomize and excite components and spectral images capture their chemical signatures.

The SuperCam boasts significant upgrades and brand new spectral capabilities for the Nasa Mars 2020 rover, named for the year of its scheduled launch.

In addition to a faster LIBS system, the SuperCam will feature an entirely new conduction-cooled laser system to provide a non-destructive analysis which is capable of detecting carbon-based signatures of organic materials.

Unlike Curiosity’s LIBS-only functionality, this new instrument will be able to switch between a LIBS mode and a “Raman” mode of lasing, a method that uses two different laser colours to excite and probe molecular vibration energies for its non-destructive chemical identification.

The second colour is produced by a crystal that doubles the 1064 nanometer frequency used for LIBS measurements - which now produces 10 times as many shots in each burst of the laser for faster sampling.

This second, 532 nanometer beam will allow Mars 2020 to detect molecular structures evident of organic matter evidence of past life. The new optical architecture required to produce the two operation modes, however, was not without its challenges.

“This laser is running in burst mode, but with this laser we can do 1000 shots in one burst while the ChemCam laser was 10 time less,” said Eric Durand, one of SuperCam’s developers at Thales Group, France.

SuperCam has been specially designed to meet tight size and weight restrictions that come with space travel and stay free of contaminants that would destroy its components - a feat achieved by sealing the instrument with laser-welding.

Last year, China’s space agency released the first images of a rover that it plans to send to Mars within the next five years in a separate mission from Nasa’s proposed 2020 launch. 

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