Top scientists aim for Venus planetary lander project
LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico, June 9, 2010—Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists have developed instruments for Earth, the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Saturn, interstellar space, and the driving solar wind that flies between the planets. Now they’re setting their sights on the planet Venus. As part of a proposed NASA mission called the Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer (SAGE), Los Alamos researchers are planning a laser tool that will rapidly measure the surface, and beneath the surface, of the planet whose hostile environment will likely destroy the lander within a few hours.
NASA, as part of its New Frontiers competition, awarded the University of Colorado at Boulder $3.3 million for a one-year concept study for a Venus lander mission, SAGE, to study the history of our sister planet’s surface, climate and atmosphere and to predict its ultimate fate in the solar system. The Los Alamos-led instrument aboard SAGE would integrate two spectroscopic analysis techniques, both using a laser, to identify chemical compounds by the light spectra they emit. Raman spectroscopy and Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy will both be used on the SAGE lander, providing multiple measurements of the planet’s surface and subsurface.
Since the planet’s atmosphere is visually impenetrable, little is known about the Venus geology. Several Soviet Venera landers of the 1970s–‘80s were the only successful missions to each very briefly explore the Venus surface. Upon reaching Ground Zero, SAGE’s instrument package would dig in, begin analyzing the landing site with a suite of instruments in addition to the Raman-LIBS device, and then send this information back to Earth before being melted and destroyed by the hot, hostile environment.
Several unique aspects of the LANL device on SAGE are that it allows many measurements to be made at different spots on the Venus surface and subsurface near the lander, whereas the old Soviet landers could only make one measurement each mission, and mineral identification will be done with SAGE, which has not been done previously.
While Venus and Earth were similar a birth, Venus has since been referred to as “Earth’s evil twin,” said Sam Clegg, principal investigator for the Los Alamos instrument.
“The Venus atmosphere suffers from global warming due to the runaway greenhouse gases. One of the goals of the Raman–LIBS instrument is to explore how the Venus geology has contributed to this global warming,” Clegg said.
The LIBS component of the device is similar to another Los Alamos space-bound instrument, the ChemCam LIBS package aboard the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity that is due for launch to Mars in the fall of 2011.
The Raman-LIBS instrument is an international collaboration between Los Alamos National Laboratory, Centre d’Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements (CESR), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Washington University in St. Louis, the Lunar and Planetary Institute and Mt. Holyoke College. The overall SAGE team is led by University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and is partnered with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colorado. The principal investigator is Dr. Larry Esposito, professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences.
LANL Press June 2010. LANL Contact for this story: Nancy Ambrosiano