Invention for Sampling Mars is Honored by NASA

Members of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory team carefully steer the hoisted Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument during its June 15, 2010, installation into the mission's Mars rover, Curiosity. The main body of the rover, upside down, is in the left half of the image, behind the installers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, Director of SETI Research

It’s an invention so clever, it just won a prestigious NASA award.  And it’s literally out of this world.

The CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) instrument developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center with the participation of two SETI Institute scientists, has just garnered the NASA Government Invention of the Year Award. 

CheMin is now on Mars, as one of the most important instruments aboard the Curiosity rover.  It’s task is to untangle which minerals are present on the martian surface, and thereby give scientists clues as to whether liquid water once ebbed and flowed here.

Essentially a miniaturized chemistry lab, CheMin not only had to withstand the rigors of a trip to the Red Planet, but also conduct its tests without being overseen by a scientist.  It drills into interesting rocks, and wrestles the resultant powder into an X-ray diffraction analyzer.  The analyzer can then ascertain which minerals are present.  Institute scientists Friedemann Freund and Phillipe C. Sarrazin were part of the team that designed and built this impressive bit of hardware.

“CheMin is a remarkable invention,” says David Morrison, Director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute. “It starts with the bulky lab concept of X-ray crystallography and dramatically simplifies, miniaturizes and ruggedizes it to create an instrument for field use on Earth, and one of the key analysis instruments on the Mars rover Curiosity.”