Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity to Earth: the photonics have landed!

As we all know by now, the Mars Curiosity rover has landed -- congrats, NASA! I, along with millions of others, will be eagerly awaiting what Curiosity has to say.

Here is just a brief mention of some of the photonics companies and organizations that produced the lasers, sensors, and optics essential to Curiosity's misson.

One of the most important instruments carried by Curiosity is the ChemCam, originally developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, NM); this instrument contains a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) system that will spectroscopically analyze Mars' surface.

An early image taken by one of Curiosity's hazard avoidance cameras (NASA)

The spectrometers in ChemCam were produced by Ocean Optics (Dunedin, FL), while the plasma-producing Q-switched, diode-pumped solid-state laser at the heart of the instrument was developed by Thales Laser (Orsay, France). The Chemcam also contains laser diodes from 3S Photonics (Nozay, France).

Curiosity contains 17 cameras; some of these were developed by Malin Space Science Systems (San Diego, CA), a company specializing in systems for unmanned spacecraft. CCD cameras from Truesense Imaging (Rochester, NY; a former division of Eastman Kodak) will be used for high-resolution (up to 14.4 μm per pixel) photos of rocks and other surface material, while CCD cameras from Teledyne Dalsa (Waterloo, ON, Canada) will be used for navigation and hazard avoidance.

Many of the camera optics for Curiosity were provided by Optimax (Ontario, NY).

It should also be mentioned that radiation-hardened photovoltaic cells from Emcore (Albuquerque, NM) powered the spacecraft as it headed toward Mars (the Curiosity rover itself is powered by radioisotope thermal generators).

I'd like to thank these innovative photonics outfits, along with the many that I have not mentioned here, for a job well done! And I look forward to seeing the science results that Curiosity will be producing in abundance -- along with the sweeping vistas that make many of us want to put our own footprints into the surface of Mars.

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