NASA engineers have installed a laser device onto the Mars 2020 rover that will search for organic compounds found in the Red Planet's rocks and soil.
The purpose of the 'super instrument', as NASA describes it, is to search for remnants of past life on the surface of Mars.
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The new instrument, called the SuperCam Mast Unit, was attached by engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
A camera, laser, and spectrometers allow the device to be able to identify the chemical makeup of tiny rocks and minerals — as small as the point of a pencil — from a distance of more than 20 feet (6 meters) away, NASA says.
The SuperCam was developed jointly in the U.S., Spain, and France and was fully installed onto the rover on June 25, in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility's High Bay 1 clean room at JPL — the rover is assembled in a clean room so that no Earth bacteria are sent to the Red Planet.
"SuperCam has come a long way from being a bold and ambitious idea to an actual instrument," said Sylvestre Maurice, SuperCam deputy principal investigator at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie in a NASA press release. "While it still has a long way to go - all the way to Mars - this is a great day for not only SuperCam but the amazing consortium that put it together."
Searching for remnants of life
Before NASA prepares to eventually send humans to Mars, the SuperCam findings will help us know more about the planet in the short-term. New findings will be added to the data compiled by the Curiosity rover.
Researchers have long tried to establish whether there are even basic lifeforms on Mars. Any new findings will bolster NASA's plans to send humans to the planet in the 2030s.
"SuperCam's rock-zapping laser allows scientists to analyze the chemical composition of its targets," said Soren Madsen, the payload development manager at JPL. "It lets the Mars 2020 rover conduct its cutting-edge science from a distance."
As well as the SuperCam instrument, NASA will soon install Mars 2020's Sample Caching System. Sporting 17 motors, it will collect samples of rocks and soil from Mars that will be left on the planet for future missions to collect and return to Earth.
The Mars 2020 rover will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July of 2020. It is expected to land on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021.