NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, will carry a next generation, onboard "chemical element reader" to measure the chemical ingredients in Martian rocks and soil. The instrument is one of 10 that will help the rover in its upcoming mission to determine the past and present habitability of a specific area on the Red Planet. Launch is scheduled between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011, with landing in August 2012.
IMG Ref: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument, designed by physics professor Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, uses the power of alpha particles, or helium nuclei, and X-rays to bombard a target, causing the target to give off its own characteristic alpha particles and X-ray radiation. This radiation is "read by" an X-ray detector inside the sensor head, which reveals which elements and how much of each are in the rock or soil.
Identifying the elemental composition of lighter elements such as sodium, magnesium or aluminum, as well as heavier elements like iron, nickel or zinc, will help scientists identify the building blocks of the Martian crust. By comparing these findings with those of previous Mars rover findings, scientists can determine if any weathering has taken place since the rock formed ages ago.
All NASA Mars rovers have carried a similar instrument – Pathfinder's rover Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, and now Curiosity, too. Improvements have been made with each generation, but the basic design of the instrument has remained the same.