Laser Scheduled to Ride Onboard Zoe in Mars Mission to be Tested in Atacama

Laser Scheduled to Ride Onboard Zoe in Mars Mission to be Tested in Atacama

27 June 2013

The Atacama Desert has always been the top choice of NASA scientists when they want to test instruments designed to identify habitats and microbial life in an extreme environment. This is because the desert, known as the driest place on Earth and stretching across four South American countries, is the place on our planet that most closely resembles the surface of Mars. There is one particular area of Atacama in Chile which is said to match exactly the utter desolation of the red planet. And this is where a team of US scientists is heading to test their latest laser, tipped to be aboard a mobile robot going on an expedition to Mars in 2020.

Over the past 18 years Alian Wang, a research professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University, and her colleagues have been working together with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build a laser Raman spectrometer, dubbed the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer (MMRS). The scientists claim that this device delivers a more distinct, sharper image of analyzed rock and soil samples, which eliminates the need for conducting complex spectral processing to identify all particles contained in each sample.

MMRS was initially scheduled to support the Mars missions of rovers Spirit and Opportunity. But after NASA lost two missions, the Polar Lander and the Climate Orbiter, these robots were downsized and the MMRS offloaded as this was the newest technology on the rovers.

NASA is now planning to send a new rover to the red planet in seven years, nicknamed Zoe. As Wang has just $3 million available to make sure the spectrometer is ready to ride aboard Zoe, she is sending a colleague to join a team from Carnegie Mellon University in Atacama to test the device. The scientists from Pittsburgh will oversee the tests with the MMRS and try to detect any flaws on site.