December 21, 2015

Mars 2020/SuperCam

SuperCam is an enhanced version of the ChemCam instrument that has been operating on the Curiosity Mars rover since 2012. Besides enabling remote analysis of Martian rocks, SuperCam will also be capable of detecting organic molecules that could indicate possible traces of life from the planet’s ancient past.

SuperCam is one of the 7 science instruments of the U.S. Mars 2020 mission. It will be mounted on a rover similar to Curiosity and, like ChemCam, will fire a laser at points on target rocks, heating them to temperatures of up to 8,000°C. It will thus vaporize them into a plasma, generating a flash of light that will then be resolved into separate spectral components to reveal the rocks’ chemical composition. SuperCam also comprises a Raman spectrometer and an infrared spectrometer that will be used together to establish the mineral composition of rocks and detect any organic molecules present.

Provisionally named Mars 2020 Rover, the roving vehicle is planned to be released onto the surface of the Red Planet in February 2021, at a landing site still to be determined. Unlike Curiosity, it will have a ‘caching’ system for collecting and storing samples of Martian rock. SuperCam will play a key role in selecting samples for retrieval by later missions that will return them to Earth.

SuperCam is the result of close collaboration between the U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the IRAP astrophysics and planetology research institute (France), with a contribution from the University of Valladolid (Spain). Design and construction of the French contribution to SuperCam, called the Mast Unit, is being coordinated by IRAP with CNES oversight. Other French laboratories—the Midi-Pyrenees Observatory (OMP), the LAB astrophysics laboratory in Bordeaux, the LESIA space and astrophysics instrumentation research laboratory and the LATMOS atmospheres, environments and space observations laboratory—are also contributing elements of the instrument. SuperCam will be delivered to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in December 2018 for integration on the rover.