29 August 2012
At this writing, the Martian rover, Curiosity, is starting to flex its muscles in the Gale Crater. From its original position, Curiosity has already taken a few shots with its laser at a nearby rock, and the Los Alamos folks who developed that system are looking forward to analyzing the data that should tell them what that rock is made of.
Yes, the rover uses a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) system similar to what Materialytics, uses in M2S®, but on a rather different scale. Curiosity’s laser has enough zip to bore real holes, not just make dimples, in rocks some meters away. Just as in M2S, the laser shots convert some of the material to plasma that, as it cools, emits light at frequencies characteristic of the elements from which it is made. The team is expecting to learn a great deal about Mars from analyzing that light emission.
We try not to bore holes. M2S leaves as small a trace of our testing as possible; which is particularly important when dealing with valuable or fragile materials like gems. In practice, when jewelers are invited to find traces of testing left on a valuable emerald bracelet we use for demonstration, they can do it, but they need a loupe to magnify the traces enough to spot them. NASA is not quite so worried about marking up a few rocks as Curiosity roams around Gale.
The results of Curiosity's LIBS work on Mars should prove interesting and valuable, as will the details NASA releases about the technique of their experiment.
Eventually, of course, we hope a vehicle will bring back a few pieces of Martian rock that we can analyze with M2S. Nobody is holding his breath until this happens.