Friday, December 2, 2011

Why does Mars Curiosity rover have a laser raygun?

Yes, NASA's Mars rover has a laser gun. But there are no plans for Curiosity to zap Martians. This cool little laser – and it is tiny – is known as the "ChemCam."

The idea for putting a laser on a Mars rover is traced by NASA back to 1997. At the time, Roger Wiens was a geochemist with the US Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was working on an idea for using lasers to investigate the moon (full story).

Los Alamos instrument to shine light on Mars habitability

With the successful launch of the Mars Science Laboratory on Saturday, Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers and scientists from the French space institute IRAP are poised to begin focusing the energy of a million light bulbs on the surface of the Red Planet to help determine whether Mars was or is habitable.

The international team of space explorers that launched the Mars Science Laboratory last week is relying in part on an instrument originally developed at Los Alamos called ChemCam, which will use blasts of laser energy to remotely probe Mars’s surface. The robust ChemCam system is one of 10 instruments mounted on the mission’s rover vehicle, named Curiosity (full story).

The same writeup appeared here.

LIBS spectrometer from LANL to seek life on Mars

Los Alamos, NM--On the successful November 26 NASA launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, the car-sized Curiosity rover was equipped with a remote-detection instrument originally developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) called ChemCam that will use blasts of laser energy to remotely probe Mars’s surface, determining whether Mars is or was habitable.

The LANL researchers and scientists from the French space institute IRAP will analyze data from a telescope that views the flash of glowing plasma created by vaporized material from the laser and record the colors of light contained within it for spectroscopic analyses.

The Curiosity rover is expected to land on Mars in August 2012 after traveling nearly 354 million miles and roam the surface of Mars for about 98 weeks, the period of one Martian year (full story).

ChemCam to probe Martian surface for habitability clues

When Curiosity rover lands on the red planet next year, one of the 10 instruments onboard that form the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will start zapping the surface to help determine whether Mars is or was habitable.

Known as ChemCam, it will focus the energy of more than 1 million light bulbs in powerful laser pulses lasting five-billionths of a second that can vaporize an area the size of a pinhead, reaching up to 23 feet (7 meters) away from Curiosity (full story).

N.M. aids Mars trip

Solar panels manufactured by the Emcore Corp. will be powering instruments aboard the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during its cruise stage to the Red Planet.

New Mexico’s other connections include the rover’s ChemCam laser, developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory, that is to be remotely operated by scientists at the University of New Mexico. There also is a rock from Socorro inside the rover to serve as a geologic sample to ensure a second instrument managed by a UNM-based team is working properly (full story).

Two LANL scientists win E.O. Lawrence Awards

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced Monday that Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists Mark Chadwick and David Chavez are winners of 2011 Ernest Orlando Lawrence Awards. The award recognizes their outstanding contributions in research and development supporting the Department of Energy and its missions.

"We could not be prouder of Mark and David for achieving this tremendous honor," said Charlie McMillan, LANL director. "Their contributions help us not only understand today’s national security challenges but prepare us for those of tomorrow. This Laboratory would not be what it is today without people like Mark and David." (full story)

Also in the Monitor:

LANL names new head of weapons programs

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan announced the selection of Bret Knapp as the new principal associate director for Weapons Programs Thursday. Knapp has been acting in that position since June 2011 when McMillan left the post to become Laboratory director.

As the head of LANL’s Weapons Programs, Knapp is responsible for the leadership, development, and execution of the Laboratory’s primary mission: ensuring the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The programs have a $1.5 billion annual budget that is split between two directorates with a workforce of more than 1,400 (full story).

Christmas Burst Reveals Neutron Star Collision

A strangely powerful, long-lasting gamma-ray burst on Christmas Day, 2010 has finally been analyzed to the satisfaction of a multinational research team. Called the Christmas Burst, GRB 101225A was freakishly lengthy and it produced radiation at unusually varying wavelengths. But by matching the data with a model developed in 1998, the team was able to characterize the star explosion as a neutron star spiraling into the heart of its companion star.

The paper, "The unusual gamma-ray burst GRB 101225A from a helium star/neutron star merger at redshift 0.33," appears in a recent issue of the journal Nature. Christina Thöne of Spain's Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía is the lead author, and Los Alamos computational scientist Chris Fryer is a contributor.

Fryer, of the Lab's Computer, Computational, and Statistical Sciences Division, realized that the peculiar evolution of the thermal emission (first showing X-rays with a characteristic radius of ~1011 cm followed by optical and infra-red emission at ~1014 cm) could be naturally explained by a model he and Stan Woosley of the University of California at Santa Cruz had developed in 1998 (full story).

Why quantum dots blink

Random fluctuations in light emission from semiconductor nanocrystals, also known as quantum dots, are driven by two photoluminescence mechanisms, according to researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The findings, which were revealed by a new spectro-electrochemical technique, uncover the causes of the “blinking,” a well-known phenomenon that limits the stability of quantum dot-based devices such as solar cells and light-emitting diodes (full story).

Is sustainability science really a science?

The idea that one can create a field of science out of thin air—just because of societal and policy need—is a bold concept. But for the emerging field of sustainability science, sorting among theoretical and applied scientific disciplines, making sense of potentially divergent theory, practice, and policy, the gamble has paid off.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Santa Fe Institute, and Indiana University analyzed the field’s temporal evolution, geographic distribution, disciplinary composition, and collaboration structure.

"We don't know if sustainability science will solve the essential problems it seeks to address, but there is a legitimate scientific practice in place now," says Luís Bettencourt of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Santa Fe Institute, first author on the paper, "Evolution and structure of sustainability science.” (full story)

How Did Martian Polar Gullies Form?

Gullies on Mars have been pointed to as evidence for the presence of flowing liquid water. However, gullies also exist in Mars' polar regions, where temperatures are too low to support liquid water.

Other processes have been proposed to explain the origin of gullies but have not been confirmed. For instance, sediment lying on top of a seasonal accumulation of carbon dioxide frost could flow like a fluid if the frost sublimes (turns to gas directly from the solid stage) sufficiently quickly. This fluidized sediment could form gullies.

To determine whether conditions are suitable for such fluidization to occur in Mars' polar regions, Cedillo-Flores et al. calculated the carbon dioxide sublimation rate needed to fluidize sand and dust lying on top of the carbon dioxide frost.

They then used a thermal model of Mars' surface and subsurface to determine whether buried carbon dioxide frost could potentially sublimate at that rate. The researchers confirm that sediment fluidization could indeed occur in Mars' polar regions, and thus, Martian gullies can form without the presence of liquid water (full stories: Mars Today and Geophysical Research Letters).

Q&A: A few minutes with Willie Padilla

After earning your doctorate at the University of California San Diego, you were selected for a Director’s Fellowship for post-doctoral study at Los Alamos National Laboratory. How did that experience influence your work?

The Director’s Fellowship allows you not only to do post-doctoral work with Los Alamos scientists, but also gives you the chance to conduct independent research. I took that opportunity to work on what was then the emerging field of metamaterials (full story).

NSTecs' new president a veteran in field

A veteran of the nation's weapons labs who currently is head of nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University will take over the reins for running the Nevada National Security Site.

Previously, Raymond J. Juzaitis served as an associate director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (full story).

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