NASA is preparing to send a new laser-equipped robot to Mars, but unlike those that you’ve seen in movies, this one is going to be used for studying mineralogy and chemistry from up to about 20 feet away. SuperCam was built by a team of hundreds and is outfitted with what would typically require several sizable pieces of equipment into something no bigger than a cereal box. This tool fires a pulsed laser beam out of the rover’s mast, or “head,” to vaporize small portions of rock from a distance, thus providing information that will be essential to the mission’s success. Read more for two videos and additional information.
It can use an infrared laser beam to heat the material it impacts to around 18,000° F — a method called laser induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS — and vaporizes it. A special camera is then used to determine the chemical makeup of these rocks from the plasma that is created. SuperCam will also include a microphone so researchers can listen each time the laser hits a target. In other words, the popping sound created by the laser subtly changes depending on a rock’s material properties.
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The microphone serves a practical purpose by telling us something about our rock targets from a distance. But we can also use it to directly record the sound of the Martian landscape or the rover’s mast swiveling,” said Sylvestre Maurice of the Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetary Science in Toulouse, France.