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NASA’s new Mars rover will use X-rays to search for fossils



NASA's new Mars rover will use X-rays to search for fossils

In this picture, NASA̵

7;s Perseverance Mars probe uses the X-ray Rock Chemistry Planetary Instrument (PIXL). The X-ray spectrometer is located on the turret at the end of the robot arm of the rover, which can help find signs of ancient microorganisms in the rocks. Image source: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s “Mars 2020” Perseverance Rover is facing a daunting challenge: it must complete the mission’s heavy entry, descent and landing phase on February 18, 2021, and it will start looking for billions of years ago. Traces of microscopic life. This is why PIXL (precision X-ray equipment powered by artificial intelligence (AI)) is packaged.


PIXL is the abbreviation of X-ray Petrochemical Planetary Instrument, which is a lunchbox-sized instrument located at the end of Perseverance’s 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm. The most important samples of the rover will be collected by a core drill at the end of the arm and then hidden in a metal tube. Perseverance will be deposited on the surface for future missions to return to earth.

From the Viking lander to the Curiosity rover, almost every mission that successfully landed on Mars included some kind of X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. One of the main ways PIXL differs from previous products is the ability to scan the rock with a powerful, well-focused X-ray beam to find the location and amount of chemical substances on the surface.

“PIXL’s X-ray beam is very narrow and can accurately identify a small grain of salt. This allows us to very accurately combine the chemicals we detect with specific textures in the rock,” NASA Jet PIXL lead researcher Abi Said Abigail Allwood. Southern California Advancement Laboratory.

In determining which samples are worth returning to Earth, rock texture will be an essential clue. On our planet, twisted rocks are called stromatolites, made from layers of ancient bacteria, and they are just one example of fossil paleontology that scientists will look for.

NASA's new Mars rover will use X-rays to search for fossils

PIXL requested a picture of its rock target to automatically locate itself. When the instrument works at night, the light-emitting diode surrounds its opening and takes pictures of the rock target. PIXL uses artificial intelligence and relies on images to determine how far away from the target to be scanned. Image source: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Artificial intelligence-driven night owl

To help find the best target, PIXL does not rely solely on sophisticated X-ray beams. It also requires a hexapod-a device with six mechanical legs that connect the PIXL to the robotic arm and obtain the most precise aim under the guidance of artificial intelligence. After placing the rover’s arm near the interesting rock, PIXL uses the camera and laser to calculate its distance. Then, these legs are slightly moved-about 100 microns, about twice the width of a human hair-so the device can scan the target and map the chemicals found in a stamp-sized area.

Allwood said: “The hexapod can figure out how to point and stretch its legs closer to the rock target.” “It’s like a small robot, already staying at home at the end of the rover’s arm.”

Then, before tilting the instrument by 100 microns and making another measurement, PIXL measures X-rays in bursts of 10 seconds from a single point on the rock. To make one of these stamp-sized chemical maps, it may take thousands of times in eight to nine hours.

NASA's new Mars rover will use X-rays to search for fossils

The hexapod is a device with six mechanical legs. It is a key part of the PIXL instrument on NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover. The hexapod allows PIXL to perform slow and precise movements, bringing it closer and pointing towards a specific part of the rock surface. This GIF has been greatly accelerated to show how the hexapod moves. Image source: NASA / JPL-Caltech

This time frame makes the micro adjustment of PIXL so critical to a certain extent: the temperature on Mars changes more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) over the course of a day, causing the metal on the permanent robotic arm to expand and contract by as much as half an inch (13 Mm). In order to minimize the thermal shrinkage that PIXL has to deal with, the instrument will be scientifically processed after the sun sets.

“PIXL is a night owl,” Allwood said. “The temperature at night is more stable, which also allows us to work when the rover is less active.”

Art and Science X-ray

Long before X-ray fluorescence reaches Mars, geologists and metallurgists use it to identify materials. Eventually, it became the standard museum technique for discovering the origin of paintings or detecting forgeries.

NASA's new Mars rover will use X-rays to search for fossils

PIXL opened the dust cover during testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. PIXL is one of the seven instruments of NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover, located at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. Image source: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Chris Heirwegh, an X-ray fluorescence expert on the JPL PIXL team, said: “If you know that artists usually use a certain type of titanium dioxide and have unique heavy metal chemical characteristics, the evidence may help identify the painting.” “Or, you can determine a certain Does the paint originate in Italy instead of France, and associate it with specific art groups of the period.”

For astrobiologists, X-ray fluorescence is a way to read stories from ancient times. Allwood used it to determine that the stromatolites found in her native Australia are the oldest microbial fossils on the planet, with a history dating back 3.5 billion years. Using PIXL to draw a chemical map of rock texture will provide scientists with clues to explain whether the sample may be a fossil microorganism.

More information about the task

The main goal of Perseverance on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. Wanderers will also characterize the Earth’s climate and geology, pave the way for humans to explore the red planet, and be the first planetary mission to collect and store Martian rocks and heavy rocks (broken rocks and dust). NASA is currently considering follow-up missions in cooperation with the European Space Agency. These missions will send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and then return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.


T minus one year and count towards the 2020 Mars Rover


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