In its mission to Mars this summer, NASA is sending a new laser-toting robot as one of seven instruments aboard the Mars 2020 rover. Called SuperCam, the robot is used for studying mineralogy and chemistry from up to about 7 metres away. It might help scientists find signs of fossilised microbial life on Mars.
SuperCam packs what would typically require several sizable pieces of equipment into something no bigger than a cereal box. It fires a pulsed laser beam out of the rover’s mast to vaporise small portions of rock from a distance, providing information that will be essential to the mission’s success.
NASA lists five things to know
* From more than 7 m away, SuperCam can fire a laser to study rock targets smaller than a pencil point. That lets the rover study spots it can’t reach with its arm.
* SuperCam looks at rock textures and chemicals to find those that formed or changed in water on Mars long ago.
* SuperCam looks at different rock and “soil” types to find ones that could preserve signs of past microbial life on Mars — if any ever existed.
* For the benefit of future explorers, SuperCam identifies which elements in the Martian dust may be harmful to humans.
* Scientists can learn about how atmospheric molecules, water ice, and dust absorb or reflect solar radiation. This helps predict Martian weather better.
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SuperCam includes a microphone so scientists can listen each time the laser hits a target. The popping sound created by the laser subtly changes depending on a rock’s material properties. The Mars 2020 rover marks the third time this particular microphone design will go to the Red Planet. In the late 1990s, the same design rode aboard the Mars Polar Lander, which crashed on the surface. In 2008, the Phoenix mission experienced electronics issues that prevented the microphone from being used.