01 July 2012

Canadian Tech goes to Mars! Happy Canada Day!

A close-up of APXS's sensor
Happy Canada Day for all the Canadians in the world... and beyond!

As the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, or Curiosity) is getting closer to its landing on Mars on August 6, the Canadian Space Agency is also eager to see the project unravel.
This laboratory on wheels will act as a motorized field geologist and geochemist, probing and analysing the Martian surface using, among other things, its Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) provided by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The spectrometer, specially adapted and tuned for the mission, will analyse samples to help ascertain the potential habitability of Mars.

What is the APXS instrument?
Roughly the size and shape of a Rubik’s cube, APXS's sensor will be able to gather data day and night. It will take two to three hours to analyze a sample to determine what elements it is made of, including trace elements. A quick-look analysis can be completed in about ten minutes. APXS, which sits on the end of the rover's robotic arm, will move in close to a sample and bombard it with alpha particles (charged Helium nuclei) and X-rays to study the properties of the energy emitted from the sample in response. The APXS instrument on Curiosity is an updated version of the spectrometers that were successfully used on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) and Mars Pathfinder missions.

The added capabilities and the big instruments in the rover's belly, Curiosity needs more energy to operate. It receives its energy from a thermoelectric generator that uses the decay heat from radioactive isotopes to generate about three times the amount of energy that a MER rover achieved under ideal conditions with its solar panels. This also means that Curiosity will be able to operate much better during the Martian winter, when the capabilities of the MER rovers were curtailed due to the low-standing sun.

The CSA is an international partner on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Dr. Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph is the Principal Investigator for APXS. He provided the scientific design based on the MER instrument (developed at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, in Mainz, Germany) and leads the APXS science team, which includes: the University of New Brunswick , University of Western Ontario , JPL, University of California, San Diego, Cornell University and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. MDA is the prime contractor for APXS.

Source: Mars Rocks: Canada's Contribution to Curiosity, the Next Mission to Mars, Canadian Space Agency
Photo: A close-up of APXS's sensor head as it undergoes vibration tests at MDA in Brampton, Ontario. The sensor head is the part of the instrument that will be placed into contact with Martian samples for analysis. (Credit: MDA)