NASA is planning to send back a very old piece of Martian rock home for the sole purpose of blowing it up. This is all part of a larger research mission which will pave the way for human visitation of Mars.
The ancient rock, named “Sayh al Uhaymir 008,” or “SaU008,” was once part of a larger meteorite that blew off the red planet and landed here on Earth millions of years ago. In 1999, SaU008 was discovered in Oman and one of just 200 known Martian rock samples that are deemed strong enough to survive the journey back to its origins.
“Every year, we provide hundreds of meteorite specimens to scientists all over the world to for study,” Caroline Smith, the principal curator of meteorites at London’s Natural History Museum – which provided the rock, said in the press release. “This is a first for us: sending one of our samples back home for the benefit of science.”
The rock will part of the 2020 Mars rover mission where it will be blown up to test the calibration process for the rover’s hyper-sensitive laser measurement device, dubbed “SHERLOC.”
SHERLOC was designed to examine rock and chemical features as fine as human hair and needs something to help it get its bearings on the red planet. In the past, NASA used materials such as rocks, metals and pieces of glass to help adjust similar technology.
The laser, called the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), is designed to illuminate features on rock samples as fine as a human hair and analyze them using Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies. To achieve the necessary precision, NASA engineers want to use a calibration sample that is as near to the Martian rocks as possible, so they reasoned that the best choice would be an actual piece of Mars that was blasted off the planet in an ancient asteroid strike and landed on Earth millions of years ago.
“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 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”
This time, however, the agency believes it would suit SHERLOC best if the material used had the same composition as the planet it’s designed to explore. Once the laser is adjusted it, along with the rover, will photograph rocks on Mars and use a UV light to analyze and search for signs of life.
With the goal of human exploration in mind, it should be worth the sacrifice of one rare Martian rock.
However, NASA says that this is not the first bit of Mars that it has sent home. The first was onboard the now inactive Mars Global Surveyor, which carries a chunk of a meteorite known as Zagami, but that is still in orbit around the planet. Meanwhile, another instrument on Mars 2020, the SuperCam, will have its own Martian meteorite calibration target. In addition, the rover will carry samples of materials that could be used in spacesuits and other equipment on future manned Mars expeditions.