A piece of a Mars that landed on Earth is set to be returned to the red planet.
The meteorite, which was found in Oman in 1999 and called Shayh al Uhaymir (SaU008), will be carried on-board NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission.
SaU008 will be the first Martian meteorite to have a fragment return to the planet’s surface.
The piece of rock will serve as target practice for a laser instrument on the rover’s arm designed to illuminate rock features as fine as a human hair.
Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. One of two slices will be used for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover while still on Earth; the other slice will go to Mars on board the rover
According to NASA’s JPL, the level of precision required to illuminate tiny rock features requires a calibration target to help tweak the laser’s settings.
Previous NASA rovers have included calibration targets as well, and depending on the instrument, the target material can include things like rock, metal or glass, and can often look like a painter’s palette.
Working on this instrument lead the JPL scientists to consider using an actual piece of Mars for calibration, as Earth has a supply of Martian meteorites, albeit a limited one.
Scientists determined that these Martian meteorites were blasted off Mars’ surface million of years ago.
These meteorites aren’t as unique as the geologically diverse samples the Mars 2020 rover is set to collect.
But Earth’s supply of Mars meteorites are still scientifically interesting, and useful for target practice and calibration.
‘We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,’ said Luther Beegle of JPL.
Beegle is principal investigator for a laser instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals).
‘By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface,’ said Beegle.
Close-up of a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. One of two slices will be used for testing a laser instrument called SHERLOC, on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. It will photograph the rocks it studies and map the chemicals it detect across those images
SHERLOC will be the first instrument to use Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies, scientific techniques used by forensic expoerts.
Whenever an ultraviolet light shines over certain carbon-based chemicals, they give off the same characteristic glow that you see under a black light.
Scientists can use this glow to detect chemicals that form in the presence of life.
SHERLOC will photograph the rocks it studies, then map the chemicals it detects across those images to add a spatial context to the layers of data Mars 2020 will collect.
‘This kind of science requires texture and organic chemicals – two things that our target meteorite will provide,’ said Rohit Bhartia of JPL, SHERLOC’s deputy principal investigator
Martian meteorites are precious in their rarity as only about 200 have been confirmed by The Meteoritical Society, which has a database listing these vetted meteorites.
To select the right meteorite for SHERLOC, JPL turned to turned to its contacts, including the Natural History Museum in London.
The meteorite needed to be solid enough that it would not flake apart during the intensity of the launch and landing on Mars.
The meteorite also needed to possess certain chemical features to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity, and these had to be reasonably easy to detect repeatedly for the calibration target to be useful.
A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars placed inside an oxygen plasma cleaner, which removes organics from the outside of surfaces. One of two slices of the meteorite will be used for testing a laser instrument on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover while it’s still on Earth; the other slice will go to Mars on-board the rover
Researchers tested several meteorite samples, cutting off thin sections to see whether they would crumble, as using a ‘flaky’ sample could damage the entire meteorite in the process.
The SHERLOC team agreed on using SaU008, a meteorite found in Oman in 1999, which was more rugged than other samples.
A piece of the meteorite was available courtesy of Caroline Smith, principal curator of meteorites at London’s Natural History Museum.
‘Every year, we provide hundreds of meteorite specimens to scientists all over the world for study,’ Smith said.
The Mars 2020 mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. The mission is timed for a launch in July/August 2020 when Earth and Mars are in good positions relative to each other for landing on Mars
‘This is a first for us: sending one of our samples back home for the benefit of science.’
SaU008 will be the first Martian meteorite to have a fragment return to the planet’s surface, however it won’t be the first on a return trip to Mars.
NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor included a chunk of a meteorite known as Zagami, which is still floating around the Red Planet on-board the now-defunct orbiter.
Additionally, the team behind Mars 2020’s SuperCam instrument will be adding a Martian meteorite to their own calibration target.
Along with its own Martian meteorite, the rover will also carry scientific samples to test for human spaceflight.
Pictured is an image of Mars. Along with its own Martian meteorite, SHERLOC will also carry scientific samples for human spaceflight. These include materials that could be used to make spacesuit fabric, gloves and a helmet’s visor. By watching how they hold up under Martian weather, including radiation, NASA will be able to test these materials for future Mars missions
These include materials that could be used to make spacesuit fabric, gloves and a helmet’s visor.
By watching how they hold up under Martian weather, including radiation, NASA will be able to test these materials for future Mars missions.
‘The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,’ said Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center.
‘It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.’