The von Kármán Lecture Series: 2010

Mars Science Laboratory: The Search for Habitable Environments

Sept. 16 & 17

Due to launch in 2011, Mars Science Laboratory will investigate a landing site that shows clear evidence for ancient aqueous processes based on orbital data and undertake the search for past and present habitable environments. MSL will have the capability to detect complex organic molecules in rocks and soils, and also be able to evaluate the concentration and isotopic composition of potentially biogenic atmospheric gases such as methane. MSL will also be able to measure the isotopic composition of inorganic and organic carbon in rocks and soils, the elemental and mineralogical concentrations and abundances, and the attributes of unusual rock textures.

The MSL payload includes a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer and gas analyzer that will search for organic carbon in rocks, soils and in the atmosphere; an x-ray diffractometer that will determine mineralogical diversity in rocks and soils; color cameras that can image landscapes and rock/soil textures in unprecedented resolution; an alpha-particle x-ray spectrometer for in situ determination of rock and soil chemistry; a laser-induced breakdown spectrometer to remotely sense the chemical composition of rocks and minerals; an active neutron spectrometer designed to search for water in rocks and soils; a weather station to measure modern-day environmental variables; and a sensor designed for continuous monitoring of background solar and cosmic radiation.

Four very promising landing sites have been identified that will give MSL a good head start on the search for past habitable environments that could preserve paleoenvironmental indicators.


Dr. John Grotzinger
Project Scientist
Mars Science Laboratory, CalTech


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