This high-resolution still image is part of a video taken by several cameras as NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars Thursday. A camera aboard the descent stage captured this shot. Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Roger Wiens, a Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellow and Principal Investigator for the SuperCam, watched the Perseverance rover landing on Mars Thursday with his family in Los Alamos. He later participated in the LANL ‘after-party’ for the historic event before heading to the SuperCam Operations Center at LANL. Photo Courtesy LANL
Los Alamos National Laboratory Senior Scientist Sam Clegg with a lab-based version of ChemCam, the predecessor of SuperChem. Clegg is the Co-Investigator on the SuperChem team. Photo Courtesy LANL
LANL Planetary Scientist Nina Lanza has been involved with the Chem-Cam and SuperCam projects since 2006. Photo Courtesy LANL
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory hosted a virtual after-party Thursday evening for more than 300 people to mark the successful landing of the Perseverance rover in the Jezero Crater on Mars just hours earlier, watched by millions of people around the world.
LANL deputy director for Science, Technology and Engineering John Sarrao in opening remarks said he was thrilled to be able to witness the incredible feat of science and engineering that this landing is.
“We in the Los Alamos community are especially excited because the Laboratory, once again is playing a major role in one of NASA’s Mars missions. Not only is the rover powered by a plutonium heat source developed at Los Alamos but we also helped develop two of the scientific instruments aboard the rover that will study this Martian surface and tell us whether life ever existed there,” he said. “I hope you take away from tonight’s event, not only a better understanding of Mars and the science we’re currently doing, but perhaps more importantly, have an even broader curiosity for what’s out there in space and the discoveries yet to be made.
Immediately following the landing, Perseverance snapped two clear photos and began to jettison items such as camera covers as it responded to commands from earth. Today, one of two instruments aboard the rover, the SuperCam, developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, will begin its work. The plan is to get some detailed pictures of the spot where the rover landed and figure out where the rover is going to go to eventually from that spot.
LANL nuclear Jeff Favorite was the emcee for Thursday’s event and introduced several LANL scientists who spoke of their part in the Perseverance over the past few years.
Viewers heard presentations from Roger Wiens, who leads the LANL team for SuperCam team just as he has led the team for its predecessor ChemCam for the Curiosity rover. SuperCam sits on the top of a mast on Perseverance and it looks through a telescope to focus a powerful laser on rocks and soils up to 25 feet away to study their chemical composition and it takes the highest resolution remote images through that telescope.
“But SuperCam does much more. NASA called it a Swiss army knife of instruments because it does so many things. We added two techniques to study the mineralogy and the molecular composition of these same spots and it has a microphone, so that for the very first time, we can study the world of acoustics and sounds on Mars,” he said.
The second role LANL plays on the Perseverance is with the SHERLIC instrument which sits on the end of the rover’s arm and from there it uses a tiny ultra-violet laser to interrogate micron-size spots to make up a map about one inch in size of the organic and mineral make-up of that little spot, Wiens said.
“SHERLOC is a partnership between Los Alamos and JPL, with our Lab assembling the detector and the control electronics and programming this instrument,” he said.
The third LANL role in the mission is to supply the fuel that runs the Perseverance rover.
“For over 50 years, Los Alamos has powered the NASA spacecraft reaching to the edge of our solar system with Voyager and Saturn and Jupiter, with Cassini and Galileo, and roving Mars with Curiosity and now with Perseverance. NASA’s best and most exciting missions could never be done without the power supplies that only we can provide,” Wiens said.
Perseverance, the fifth rover since 1997, is the biggest and most capable rover ever to land on the Red Planet, he noted.
“We will be exploring a fascinating river delta in Jezero Crater and studying carbonate minerals never before encountered in this alien world and helping to pick samples to be collected for eventual return to earth. And the world’s going to be watching us to see what be pick and how this goes for this historic first part of a round-trip to the Red Planet and eventually back to earth again,” Wiens said
He added that different team members would describe how the instruments were developed at LANL, how the instruments are used to complement the instruments that are on Mars to fulfill scientific investigations, and how a team of engineers and scientists command the SuperCam and SHERLOC instruments and study their results to reveal to people on earth the exciting story of the next and greatest mission to Mars.
Wiens also discussed ChemCam, which has been on Mars since 2012 with the Curiosity rover. When LANL scientists began working on ChemCam in 2005, they were inventing and developing the new technique of using a laser beam to target rocks and soils up to 25 feet away to study their chemical composition.
“Among its discoveries, it contributed to our understanding of the large lake that lasted for a long time in Gale Crater, which is its exploration site. It showed for the first time that soil carries about as much water on Mars as in southern New Mexico on a summer day. That is amazing for a planet that we thought was so dry,” Wiens said. “It contributed to our understanding of Mars as an igneous planet that does not have plate tectonics. It discovered manganese deposited in very oxidized groundwater. That shows that Mars possesses the oxidization potential needed for life.”
He said beyond that, ChemCam discovered boron left over from groundwater flowing long ago through cracks in the rock and that boron is an essential ingredient for RNA to survive in solution. ChemCam also identified copper and zinc deposits that are somewhere upstream of Gale Crater and now Wiens said, it is telling a story of how Mars started to dry out after that wet epoch.
“Overall, ChemCam, which is operated from Los Alamos, has returned over a million spectra from the Red Planet and we’ve published 102 scientific papers highlighting ChemCam and its discoveries – a wealth of information. So it’s no wonder that NASA has picked SuperCam to be its successor,” Wiens said.
Others presenting during the 90-minute included: SuperCam co-investigator Sam Clegg; lead production engineer Benigno Sandoval; lead mechanical engineer Steve Storms; planetary scientist, Anne Ollila; Scott Robinson who is an electrical engineers and was the instrument manager during the building, testing and delivery of SuperCam; Tony Nelson, an electrical engineer who specializes in Rad-Hard Electronics Design, Firmware Design and Instrument Operations; and planetary scientist Nina Lanza.
Husband and wife Ray Newell and Adriana Reyes-Newell were two of the speakers during Thursday’s Perseverance landing virtual after-party. Photo Courtesy LANL