How NASA's shoebox-sized gizmo SuperCam collects Mars samples

The bundle of instruments known as SuperCam on board the Perseverance Mars rover has collected its first samples in the hunt for past life on the Red Planet

NASA Navcam

The bundle of instruments known as SuperCam on board the Perseverance Mars rover has collected its first samples in the hunt for past life on the Red Planet, mission scientists said Wednesday.

The return to Earth years from now of the rocks and soil it retrieves "will give scientists the Holy Grail of planetary exploration," Jean-Yves le Gall, president of France's National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), which mostly built the mobile observatory, commented via a YouTube broadcast.  

These "pieces of Mars", he said, may "finally answer this fascinating and fundamental question: was there ever life elsewhere than Earth?"

(Photograph:AFP)

Pieces of Mars

These "pieces of Mars", he said, may "finally answer this fascinating and fundamental question: was there ever life elsewhere than Earth?"

After seven months in space, NASA's Perseverance rover gently set down on Martian soil last month and sent back black-and-white images revealing the rocky fields of Jezero Crater, just north of the Mars equator.

"The critical component of this astrobiology mission is SuperCam," said Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

(Photograph:AFP)

Shoebox-sized gizmo

Mounted on the rover's mast, the shoebox-sized gizmo is packed with spectrometers, a laser, and an audio recording device to analyse the chemistry, mineralogy and molecular composition of Mars' famously red surface.    

SuperCam's laser can zap objects smaller than a pencil point from as far away as seven metres (20 feet), and enables the observation of spots beyond the reach of the rover's robotic arm.

"The laser is uniquely capable of remotely clearing away surface dust, giving all of its instruments a clear view of the targets," said Roger Wiens, an engineer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and SuperCam principal investigator.

(Photograph:AFP)

Blessing in disguise

The mission suffered a serious mishap before liftoff, revealed LANL's Scott Robinson, who said more than 500 engineers and scientists contributed to the project.

"The mast unit optics were destroyed in a freak accident just four months before delivery," he explained. "The team scambled to pull together spare parts to rebuild the telescope from scratch."

The accident turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

(Photograph:AFP)

Six-wheeled rover

The Mars rover Perseverance has successfully conducted its first test drive on the Red Planet. 

The six-wheeled rover travelled about 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) in 33 minutes on Thursday. It drove four meters forward, turned in place 150 degrees to the left, and then backed up 2.5 meters, leaving tire tracks in the Martian dust.

NASA engineers said they were studying possible routes for longer rover voyages on the surface of Mars.

A slightly longer trip was planned for Friday, and perhaps another Saturday if all goes well.

(Photograph:AFP)

Rover can cover 200 meters per Martian day

The rover can cover 200 meters per Martian day, which is slightly longer than a day on Earth.

And it goes five times faster than Curiosity, its predecessor, which is still functioning eight years after landing on Mars.

Perseverance deputy mission manager Robert Hogg said engineers were also preparing for the first flight of a helicopter drone carried by the rover.

Hogg said the rover team was working out flight zones and hoped to conduct the first flight in late spring or early summer.

(Photograph:AFP)

Size of an SUV

The rover's primary mission will last just over two years but it is likely to remain operational well beyond that.

Over the coming years, Perseverance will attempt to collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes to be sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for analysis.

About the size of an SUV, the craft weighs a ton, is equipped with a seven-foot-long robotic arm, has 19 cameras, two microphones and a suite of cutting-edge instruments.

(Photograph:AFP)

Jezero Crater

NASA said the rover's cameras will help scientists assess the geologic history and atmospheric conditions of Jezero Crater and identify rocks and sediment worthy of a closer examination and collection for eventual return to Earth.

Perseverance has also been able to upload its first high-resolution, color photo showing the flat region it landed on in the Jezero Crater, where a river and deep lake existed billions of years ago.

A second color image shows one of the rover's six wheels, with several honeycombed rocks thought to be more than 3.6 billion years old lying next to it.

 

(Photograph:AFP)

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