NASA is taking up the new instrument that it will be sending to Mars aboard the Mars 2020 rover. The rover is set to launch this summer, and the instrument that NASA is talking about is the SuperCam. That camera is designed to shoot a laser at rocks from about 20 feet away to vaporize some of the rock.
Scientists will study the vaporized rock emission to determine if there are minerals that formed in the presence of liquid water. NASA is particularly interested in clays, carbonates, and sulfates. Scientists will also use information from SuperCam to decide whether to capture rock cores from the rover’s sample caching system. Mars 2020 will collect those core samples in metal tubes and deposit them at predetermined locations for a future mission to retrieve.
SuperCam is a next-generation version of the ChemCam that is on the Curiosity rover. SuperCam uses an IR laser beam to heat the materials it impacts to around 18,000F. The method is called “laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy” or LIBS. It vaporizes the material, and a special camera can determine the chemical makeup of these rocks from the plasma that is created.
SuperCam uses AI to seek out target rocks that are worth testing during its drive across the Red Planet. The camera uses an upgraded AI that allows for very precise aiming at rock features. A green laser that is part of SuperCam can determine the molecular composition of surface materials. That beam excited the chemical bonds in a sample and produces a signal depending on what elements are bonded together, called Raman spectroscopy.
The green laser can also cause some minerals and carbon-based chemicals to emit light or fluoresce. SuperCam also has a microphone that allows scientists to listen as the laser hits a target. The popping sound it makes changed depending on the rock’s material properties. Another mic on the rover will capture sounds during entry, descent, and landing.