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Ask the researchers

Ask the researchers

How does the laser spectrometer on the Mars Curiosity rover work? Cristina Figueiredo Valente [via e-mail]

NASA/JPL/Caltech/MSSSThe Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in August is equipped with a laser spectrometer and eight other instruments to explore the planet and study what makes it different from Earth.  The two planets were similar when they were formed about 4.6 billion years ago.  Today however, while the Earth is full of oceans, rivers, rains and multiple species of living things,  the red planet appears to be uninhabited and its water inaccessible.  Learning about what happened to Mars may help us understand the history of the Earth itself.  The job of the laser spectrometer is to reveal the makeup of samples like rocks, for example.  In order to do this, the device vaporizes the material, using a high amount of energy.  After a time, the sample loses energy and begins to emit photons or light waves.  Researchers know what the analyzed material consists of because each element on the periodic table (like iron, calcium or phosphorus) always emits its own particular wave frequency.  The method is also useful for analyzing everything from cancer cells to material at the bottom of the ocean.  On Mars, the instrument  – together with two others – will search for signs of life in the soil.

Ramon de Paula
NASA Mission Engineer

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