A date with Mars

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Star Wars laser tool made at LANL prepped for voyage into space

By Special to the Monitor

A laser instrument made in Los Alamos and meant for Mars has completed the first leg of its journey — over land — to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Next year, the instrument called the ChemCam will be on the Red Planet, helping to find out what elements are in Mars’ rocks and soil from a distance of 23 feet from Curiosity, the new rover.
“ChemCam will act as a geochemical observatory, providing composition data to understand if Mars was, is, or will be a habitable world. It will also help the rover team pick the most promising targets on which to use the rover’s other instruments,” said Sylvestre Maurice, the French lead for the instrument.
At JPL, ChemCan will be installed on Curiosity.
The ChemCam instrument was conceived, designed and built by a U.S.-French team, led by Los Alamos National Laboratory, , CNES and the CESR at the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées in Toulouse.
ChemCam is the first instrument of its kind.
“We brought together a lot of new ideas to make this instrument a reality,” said Roger Wiens, the instrument’s principal investigator, from Los Alamos. The way it works, ChemCan fires pulses of laser light at potentially distant targets using a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), to measure the chemical content of the target samples.
The laser beam vaporizes a pinhead-sized area on the target. A spectral analyzer then peers at the flash of light from the vaporized sample.
The Curiosity rover is by far the biggest and most capable robot ever destined for Mars.
It is nuclear powered and, at a weight of more than 1984 pounds  is about the size of a small car.
The capsule that will be used to carry the rover into the Mars atmosphere is even larger than the Apollo capsule that housed three astronauts for missions to the Moon.
ChemCam is one of 10 instrument packages on the rover. The other instruments are capable of identifying minerals, sniffing out organic materials, observing the weather and radiation environment, and drilling several centimeters into the Martian rocks.
Curiosity is set for launch from Florida in November of 2011 and will arrive at Mars in August 2012.