As previously reported here in Trebuchet, NASA plans to land a car-sized exploration vehicle on the Gale crater on Mars next August.
In a follow-up to the original press statement, NASA have made public some more details about the mission, including the vehicle's ability to dig into the planet's surface for samples.
An instrument on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity can check for any water that might be bound into shallow underground minerals along the rover’s path.
If we conclude that there is something unusual in the subsurface at a particular spot, we could suggest more analysis of the spot using the capabilities of other instruments,” said this instrument’s principal investigator, Igor Mitrofanov of the Space Research Institute, Russia.
The Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument, or DAN, will scout for underground clues to a depth of about 20 inches. The Russian Federal Space Agency contributed it to NASA as part of a broad collaboration between the United States and Russia in the exploration of space.
DAN will bring to the surface of Mars an enhancement of nuclear technology that has already detected Martian water from orbit. “Albedo” in the instrument’s name means reflectance — in this case, how original high-energy neutrons injected into the ground bounce off atomic nuclei in the ground. Neutrons that collide with hydrogen atoms bounce off with a characteristic decrease in energy, similar to how one billiard ball slows after colliding with another.
By measuring the energies of the neutrons leaking from the ground, DAN can detect the fraction that was slowed in these collisions, and therefore the amount of hydrogen.
DAN will provide the ability to detect hydrated minerals or water ice in the shallow subsurface
Oil prospectors use this technology in instruments lowered down exploration holes to detect the hydrogen in petroleum. Space explorers have adapted it for missions to the Moon and Mars, where most hydrogen is in water ice or in water-derived hydroxyl ions.
Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena said, “DAN will provide the ability to detect hydrated minerals or water ice in the shallow subsurface, which provides immediate clues as to how the geology of the subsurface might guide exploration of the surface. In addition, DAN can tell us how the shallow subsurface may differ from what the rover sees at the surface. None of our other instruments have the ability to do this. DAN measurements will tell us about the habitability potential of subsurface rocks and soils — whether they contain water — and as we drive along, DAN may help us understand what kinds of rocks are under the soils we drive across.”
More information on the mission: http://www.nasa.gov/msl