At 10:02 a.m. Eastern time on a beautiful fall day a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), otherwise known as the Mars Curiosity rover, was launched on its nine month journey to Mars. On board is a Canadian contribution in the form of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument.
MSL is the size of a small car and like the previous Mars Exploration Rovers is a mobile laboratory that will explore the surface of Mars. MSL is the largest, most advanced rover ever to land on Mars. It will travel 5 to 20 kilometers from its landing site during its mission.
MSL is powered by a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars’ surface of at least a full Martian year (687 Earth days).
The APXS is one of ten critical tools in the rovers instrument suite and will probe the chemistry of rocks and soils to investigate the processes that formed the rocks and soils. The analysis of the data from APXS could help determine if Mars ever supported microbial life in its past or present.
“Canada’s contribution to this mission is a tremendous showcase of technological innovation,” said the Honourable Christian Paradis, Minister of Industry and Minister responsible for the Canadian Space Agency. “Thanks to our skilled scientists, Canadian science and space technology is once again moving beyond the bounds of Earth’s orbit, to the frontiers of international space exploration.”
The APXS is funded by the Canadian Space Agency with MDA Corporation as the prime subcontractor. The principal investigator of the APXS os Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph. Other members of the science team come from the following institutions: University of New Brunswick, University of Western Ontario, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, University of California, San Diego, Cornell University and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.