NASA’s Perseverance Rover Uses Its SuperCam Instrument to Laser Zap a Rock on Mars

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Data from the powerful science tool includes sounds of its laser zapping a rock in order to test what it’s made of.

The first readings from the SuperCam instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover have arrived on Earth. SuperCam was developed jointly by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico and a consortium of French research laboratories under the auspices of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).

The instrument delivered data to the French Space Agency’s operations center in Toulouse that includes the first audio of laser zaps on another planet.

“It is amazing to see SuperCam working so well on Mars,” said Roger Wiens, the principal investigator for Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “When we first dreamed up this instrument eight years ago, we worried that we were being way too ambitious. Now it is up there working like a charm.”

Perched atop the rover’s mast, SuperCam’s 12-pound (5.6-kilogram) sensor head can perform five types of analyses to study Mars’ geology and help scientists choose which rocks the rover should sample in its search for signs of ancient microbial life. Since the rover’s February 18 touchdown, the mission has been performing health checks on all of its systems and subsystems.

Early data from SuperCam tests – including sounds from the Red Planet – have been intriguing.

“The sounds acquired are remarkable quality,” says Naomi Murdoch, a research scientist and lecturer at the ISAE-SUPAERO aerospace engineering school in Toulouse. “It’s incredible to think that we’re going to do science with the first sounds ever recorded on the surface of Mars!”

On March 9, the mission released three SuperCam audio files. Obtained only about 18 hours after landing, when the mast remained stowed on the rover deck, the first file captures the faint sounds of Martian wind.

This recording was made by the SuperCam instrument on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on Feb. 19, 2021, just about 18 hours after landing on the mission’s first sol or Martian day.

The rover’s mast, holding the microphone, was still stowed on Perseverance’s deck, and so the sound is muffled, a little like the sound one hears listening to a seashell or having a hand cupped over the ear. Just a little wind can be heard.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ISAE-Supaero
The wind is more audible, especially around the 20-second mark, in the second sound file, recorded on the rover’s fourth Martian day, or sol.

This recording was made on February 22, 2021, on the fourth sol (Martian day) by the SuperCam instrument on NASA’s Perseverance rover after deployment of the rover’s mast.

It provides a different overall sound than the SuperCam audio recording from the mission’s first sol. Some wind can be heard, especially around 20 seconds into the recording. Rover background sounds have been removed.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ISAE-Supaero
SuperCam’s third file, from Sol 12, includes the zapping sounds of the laser impacting a rock target 30 times at a distance of about 10 feet (3.1 meters). Some zaps sound slightly louder than others, providing information on the physical structure of the targets, such as their relative hardness.

This is the first acoustic recording of laser impacts on a rock target on Mars from March 2, 2021, the 12th sol (Martian day) from Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument.

The sounds of 30 impacts are heard, some slightly louder than others. Variations in the intensity of the zapping sounds will provide information on the physical structure of the targets, such as its relative hardness or the presence of weathering coatings.

The target, Máaz (“Mars” in Navajo), was about 10 feet (3.1 m) away.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ISAE-Supaero
“I want to extend my sincere thanks and congratulations to our international partners at CNES and the SuperCam team for being a part of this momentous journey with us,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “SuperCam truly gives our rover eyes to see promising rock samples and ears to hear what it sounds like when the lasers strike them.

This information will be essential when determining which samples to cache and ultimately return to Earth through our groundbreaking Mars Sample Return Campaign, which will be one of the most ambitious feats ever undertaken by humanity.”

The SuperCam team also received excellent first datasets from the instrument’s visible and infrared (VISIR) sensor as well as its Raman spectrometer. VISIR collects light reflected from the Sun to study the mineral content of rocks and sediments.

This technique complements the Raman spectrometer, which uses a green laser beam to excite the chemical bonds in a sample to produce a signal depending on what elements are bonded together, in turn providing insights into a rock’s mineral composition.

“This is the first time an instrument has used Raman spectroscopy anywhere other than on Earth!” said Olivier Beyssac, CNRS research director at the Institut de Minéralogie, de Physique des Matériaux et de Cosmochimie in Paris. “Raman spectroscopy is going to play a crucial role in characterizing minerals to gain deeper insight into the geological conditions under which they formed and to detect potential organic and mineral molecules that might have been formed by living organisms.”

More About the Mission
SuperCam is led by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the instrument’s Body Unit was developed.

That part of the instrument includes several spectrometers, control electronics and software.

The Mast Unit was developed and built by several laboratories of the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) and French universities under the contracting authority of CNES.

Calibration targets on the rover deck are provided by Spain’s University of Valladolid.

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life.

The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

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