Space Exploration

From The Lab: French technology on a high as Perseverance heads for Mars surface

An illustration of the Perseverance rover which will land on Mars on February 18, 2021.
An illustration of the Perseverance rover which will land on Mars on February 18, 2021. © NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is today to land in the 45km-wide Jezero crater on the Martian surface. Its mission: to look for signs of ancient life – albeit microbacteria – to assess Mars’ habitability, and to analyse the chemical composition of the Martian soil and rocks.

Advertising

The mission will also collect and store Martian soil samples so that future missions will be able to bring them back to Earth. 

The principal actor in this research? The Perseverance rover with the help of the seven instruments it carries. One of those instruments, called SuperCam, will study the chemical makeup of the rocks and soil and is the result of a collaboration between French, US and Spanish scientists.

And French laboratories have taken a lead role in developing the SuperCam. As many as 14 French laboratories have contributed to the design and construction of the Mast Unit of the SuperCam, which also has a Body Unit. 

According to Sylvestre Maurice of the Toulouse based Astrophysics and Planetology Research Institute, SuperCam is a complex piece of hardware.

“The SuperCa]m uses five capabilities that include three types of spectroscopy [technology] as well as a high resolution camera and a microphone,” Maurice, who is one of the two principal investigators of SuperCam, says.

Weighing six kilograms, it has a laser source - built by the French company Thales - which can produce both infrared and green lasers for the different spectroscopic analysis - analysis of the optical spectrum of a body to determine its composition.

“The infrared laser can help to look at the atomic composition of a Martian sample," he said.

Spectroscopy carried out with a green laser offers insights into the bondings between different atoms and molecules. Interestingly, it can also find organic molecules if they exist.

"With the infrared spectrometer we can find the fingerprints of molecular bondings,” he says.

The infrared spectrometer was built by the Astrophysics Study and Instrumentation lab or LESIA, which is a part of the Paris Observatory in Meudon.

Analysing reflected light

Jean-Michel Réess, who is a project manager at LESIA, said that the device will collect the reflected sunlight from the Martian rocks and soil and analyse the different wavelengths.

“As a result, you know exactly the kind of rocks you are looking at and you make the identification of the rocks,” he said.

It took Rées and his team around five years to build the spectrometer which weighs 400 grams.

According to Maurice, the SuperCam inherits a bit from the ChemCam, which is on the Curiosity rover launched in 2012.

“However, there were two experiments on ChemCam. On SuperCam, we have five,” he says.

The rover will be accompanied by a helicopter called Ingenuity that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning