Why the Curiosity rover’s laser was paused for some time on Mars

The ChemCam instrument laser, installed on board Curiosity, was temporarily unused. After several months, his activities can resume. Its role is to target the surface of Mars, to study the gases that make up rocks and soil.

The scientific teams of the Curiosity rover mission to Mars can once again use the ChemCam laser. Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) confirmed on May 28, 2021 that the instrument’s laser can work.

What exactly had happened? In January 2021, the data sent about the state of health by the ChemCam instrument showed, explains the laboratory, “ that the high voltage required to trigger the laser was not as stable as usual “. ChemCam (for “CHEMistry CAMera”) is composed of a laser, a camera and a spectrograph which together identify the chemical and mineralogical composition of the rocks and soils explored by Curiosity on Mars. The laser, along with the camera, is on the robot’s mast (its “head”). It is used to vaporize surfaces, creating a plasma that provides information on the gases that make up rocks and soil.

Installation of thermosensors on the Chemcam instrument. // Source: CNES / PIRAUD Hervé, 2008 (cropped photo)

ChemCam had been operating since the rover landed on Mars, in 2012. In January 2021, when data on the condition of the instrument was obtained, the laser could still fire normally and the data that came afterwards corresponded to this. that was expected. Nevertheless, it was decided to stop operations with the laser to investigate the problem encountered. Curiosity was able to continue taking images and obtaining spectroscopy data despite this.

Tests on Earth, then on Mars

ChemCam is monitored alternately by LANL on the one hand, and IRAP (Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology) and CNES (National Center for Space Studies) on the other. It is precisely the teams responsible for the laser in France who carried out tests, on an electronic part almost identical to that of the rover, for several weeks to understand where this instability could come from. Their tests showed that there was no risk to the rest of the ChemCam instrument.

Other tests were carried out directly on Mars, on different operational modes of the laser, to determine the best way to resume activities. ” The high voltage remains relatively stable when the instrument is cold; the laser continues to fire normally and returns excellent scientific data ”, Summarizes the LANL. Curiosity will continue to use the laser, but the number of planned activities will be limited to prevent the instruments from getting too hot.

So far, ChemCam has fired over 880,000 times with its laser, at 3,000 different targets. Others should therefore be added soon. Originally, Curiosity’s mission was to last one Martian year, or 22 months. The rover has largely exceeded this expectation, with 3,134 soles (the name of the day on Mars) accumulated, and 25.15 kilometers traveled, as of May 31, 2021.

All about the planet Mars

Photo credit of the one:
NASA / JPL Caltech, 2011 (cropped image)

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