In the OSTI Collections: Department of Energy R&D for the Mars Science Laboratory

Some key technology for the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” was developed by U. S. Department of Energy laboratories—especially the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (“MMRTG”) that keeps Curiosity functioning on Mars, and the Chemistry Camera (“ChemCam”) designed to determine the composition of Martian soil and rocks. Department of Energy labs also contribute methods to check spacecraft for microbes before launch to help make sure (among other things) that any signs of life found on Mars didn’t come from here; the labs also have a hand in planning for future explorations. The reports listed below describe these contributions by Department of Energy lab researchers and their collaborators.



How do you run chemical tests at a geologic site millions of miles away from you to see what the rocks and soil are made of? Curiosity’s new instrument ChemCam, developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is designed to determine how much light is emitted at each frequency by a geologic sample when it’s heated by a laser beam. Since different materials have different light-emission patterns, measuring the patterns shows what materials emitted them.


Slide presentations giving a general view of Los Alamos contributions to ChemCam:




Page 29 of 33 in this slide presentation illustrates Los Alamos contributions to the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” in detail.



Slide presentation that describes Los Alamos’ role in NASA missions Genesis (which sampled particles from the sun to help understand its composition) and Curiosity.


How ChemCam works, how it’s calibrated, and how the frequency spectrum it reads is translated into soil or rock sample compositions:



According to this report, ChemCam is one of the 10 instrument suites on the Mars Science Laboratory built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for the next NASA mission to Mars (MSL 2009) [the originally planned launch date]. ChemCam is an instrument package consisting of two remote sensing instruments: a Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS) and a Remote Micro-Imager (RMI). L1BS provides elemental compositions of rocks and soils, while the RMI places the LIBS analyses in their geomorphologic context.



Curiosity’s ChemCam does its job on Mars but is to be operated from Earth, initially at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and afterward in shifts at DoE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and the French space agency CNES. Here’s a description of the workings of the CNES operations center as well as of ChemCam itself.





As the article “RTG—History, the Curiosity, and New Horizons” ( describes, the Department of Energy has long provided spacecraft with power supplies that use radioisotopes to generate electricity. A recent model, the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, is used by Curiosity.


Idaho National Laboratory’s work on Radioisotope Power Systems:



Describes an empirical example of a highly integrated quality assurance function encompassing the Radioisotope Power Systems (RPS) program at the Idaho National Laboratory. Case data represents multiple campaigns including the Pluto/New Horizons mission, the Mars Science Laboratory mission in progress, and other related projects.



Brief historical overview and summary of ongoing work; paragraph on Curiosity’s Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator on page 4 of the 12-page PDF file from Idaho National Laboratory.


Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s work on Radioisotope Power Systems:

“Annual Technical Progress Report of Radioisotope Power Systems Materials Production and Technology Program Tasks for



Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators don’t use neutron chain reactions to produce electricity the way a nuclear power plant does; they use a radioactive material with a relatively short half-life so they gradually run down. Still, any possible accident during the launch of a radioactive substance needs to be prepared for, and is. The following reports from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory describe these preparations for such launches in general and the launch of Curiosity’s generator in particular.



Brief article on p. 4 (6 of 32 in the PDF version) describes how a radiological emergency preparedness system designed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory monitored Curiosity’s launch last November in case the unlikely event of an accident occurred.



The National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory provides critical information during hazardous airborne releases as part of an integrated national preparedness and response strategy. The center also is required to be on alert for potential accidents during NASA spacecraft launches involving radiological sources, such as the successful Cassini (1997) and Pluto New Horizons (2006) launches, and the Mars Science Laboratory launch scheduled 2011.



Mentions NARAC’s role in supporting contingency planning for NASA’s launches involving radioactive material.



National Security Technologies, LLC for NNSA

Slides (including nos. 15-18) mention or illustrate Mars missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory; Advance Launch Support Groups serve at all NASA launches of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators.


Curiosity was originally intended for launch in 2009. The following items describe contingency planning for that launch, which was scheduled for the 21-day window beginning on September 15 of that year.


From National Security Technologies, LLC:


2008 Apr 16 (11th International Conference on Radiation Shielding (ICRS-11) and the 15th Topical Meeting of the Radiation Protection and Shielding Division (RPSD-2008) of the American Nuclear Society)



From Sandia National Laboratories:



Use of the same type of integrated risk assessment for sodium-cooled fast reactors as was done at Sandia National Laboratories for Mars Science Laboratory source terms.


There are also standard methods for safely transporting radioactive materials on Earth, including those used for Curiosity’s Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.



The waiver is to be used to support a limited number of shipments of fuel for the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) Project in support of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. Under the waiver, an inventory of existing national security PCVs will be converted to standard PCVs. This report documents the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory review of the waiver request.

Signs of life


If you’re going to check for signs of life native to Mars, you don’t want to mess things up by accidentally bringing life from Earth there with you. The authors of the following report, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and DoE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, conclude that “validated state-of-the-art molecular techniques, such as DNA microarrays, can be utilized in parallel with classical culture based methods to further describe the cleanliness of spacecraft surfaces” with the aim of avoiding transfer of terrestrial microorganisms to Mars or other destinations.


Beyond Curiosity


Like many such efforts, Curiosity is not an isolated project, but is one in a stream of ideas for planetary exploration. As present explorations are under way, others are being designed for the future. These two reports, from Idaho National Laboratory with its collaborators and from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, describe two ideas under consideration.



Concept for future Mars probes.




July 2013 Update:  the Mars Science Laboratory’s ChemCam


Last year, Science Showcase reported on the Department of Energy’s contributions to the  Mars Science Laboratory (or MSL) “Curiosity”, including the ChemCam developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory to chemically analyze Martian rocks and other materials by the light they emit when heated by a laser beam, a process known as Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS).  Since then, we have received three reports from Los Alamos of things that ChemCam has revealed about Mars. 


The October 2012 document “ChemCam on Mars”[SciTech Connect] is a slide presentation of photos and other images illustrating LIBS and ChemCam, the Curiosity rover and its mission, its landing in Mars’ Gale Crater, preliminary results from its first 60 Martian days (or “sols”)[Wikipedia], and its intended future.  From this presentation, we can learn that Curiosity’s mission includes characterization of the human hazards on Mars, as well as investigating Mars’ past and potential habitability.  The geological aspect of its mission involves characterizing the area near its landing site, with early examination of a place (named “Glenelg”[Wikipedia]) where three distinct terrain types meet and ultimate exploration of the lower reaches of the 5-km high mountain (Mount Sharp) in the middle of Gale Crater.  We also see that LIBS, ChemCam’s chemical analysis technique, was originally developed at Los Alamos for the detection of metals contaminating soils on Earth.  LIBS’ first use on Mars revealed the presence of hydrogen, lithium, carbon, oxygen, sodium, magnesium, aluminum, silicon, potassium, calcium, titanium, manganese, and iron in a single spot of its first Martian rock sample. 


Figure 2.  Full-scale models of Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity (left), Sojourner (middle), and Curiosity (right).  ChemCam is the uppermost component of Curiosity with the red circle, at the top of the picture; the two dark rectangles immediately below ChemCam are the two cameras of MastCam[Wikipedia].  The actual rovers landed on Mars in 2004, 1997, and 2012.  (From “ChemCam on Mars”[SciTech Connect], page 11 of 45.)



Figure 3.  The first Martian rock sample examined with ChemCam.  Left and right portions of this figure show the rock, N165, from slightly different angles.  Analysis of the light emitted from the spot heated by the laser showed the presence of 13 different elements.  (From “ChemCam on Mars”[SciTech Connect], pages 32 and 31 of 45.)


Figure 4.  Left, Gale Crater, with Mount Sharp in the middle.  Ellipse in foreground at the foot of Mount Sharp indicates the target area for Curiosity’s landing.  Right, Mount Sharp’s layers, canyons, and buttes as shown by the 100-mm focal length component of Curiosity’s MastCam.  (From “ChemCam on Mars”[SciTech Connect], pages 18 and 42 of 45.)


“ChemCam contributions to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference”[SciTech Connect] is a set of 26 two-page reports presented at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held in March 2013.  These brief reports describe a variety of findings from the first few months of Curiosity’s time on Mars, as indicated by the following sample of report titles: 


  • “Modal mineralogy of igneous rocks with ChemCam at Gale crater”


  • “Searching for chemical variation across the surface of ‘Rocknest_3’ using MSL ChemCam spectra”


  • “Rock abrasion textures seen by the ChemCam Remote Microscopic Imager on MSL”


  • “Chemical variability and trends in ChemCam Mars observations in the first 90 sols using independent component analysis”


  • “Partial Least Squares sensitivity analysis and improvements for ChemCam LIBS data analysis on Mars”


One of these 26 reports, “Possible Alteration of Rocks Observed by ChemCam along the Traverse to Glenelg in Gale Crater on Mars”, was prepared in a shorter version[SciTech Connect] with a slightly different list of author names for the European Geosciences Union and was issued in April 2013.  The authors’ analysis of 359 ChemCam observations and numerical simulation of geochemical processes suggests, among other things, that sporadic evaporations of a calcium-enriched fluid in the soils occurred in the region examined, rather than intensive soil alterations as suspected elsewhere on Mars. 







Additional References



Reports Available through OSTI’s SciTech Connect


  • “ChemCam on Mars” [Abstract and full text available through OSTI’s SciTech Connect]
  • “ChemCam contributions to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference” [Abstract and full text available through OSTI’s SciTech Connect]
  • “Possible Alteration of Rocks Observed by ChemCam along the Traverse to Glenelg in Gale Crater on Mars” [Abstract and full text available through OSTI’s SciTech Connect]




Prepared by Dr. William N. Watson, Physicist

DoE Office of Scientific and Technical Information


Last updated on Friday 29 April 2016