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Primary among the mission's scientific goals is to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. The spacecraft are targeted to sites on opposite sides of Mars that appear to have been affected by liquid water in the past. The
landing sites are at Gusev CRater, a possible former lake in a giant impact crater, and Meridiani Planum, where mineral deposits (hematite) suggest Mars had a wet past.
After the airbag-protected landing craft settle onto the surface and open, the rovers rolled out to take panoramic
images. These give scientists the information they need to select promising geological targets that tell part of the story of water in Mars' past. Then, the rovers drive to those locations to perform on-site scientific
Pancam is a high-resolution color stereo pair of CCD cameras that will be used to image the surface and sky of Mars. The cameras are located on a "camera bar" that sits on top of the mast of the rover.
The Pancam Mast Assembly (PMA) allows the cameras to rotate a full 360° to obtain a panoramic view of the Martian landscape. The camera bar itself can swing up or down through 180° of elevation. Scientists will use Pancam to scan the horizon of Mars for landforms that may indicate a past history of water. They will also use the instrument to create a map of the area where the rover lands, as well as search for interesting rocks and soils to study.
The Pancam cameras are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand (270 grams or about 9 ounces), but can generate panoramic image mosaics as large as 4,000 pixels high and 24,000 pixels around. Pancam detectors are CCDs (charge coupled devices). These devices form the image, just as film does in a film camera.
Mini-TES is an infrared spectrometer that can determine the mineralogy of rocks and soils from a distance by detecting their patterns of thermal radiation. All warm objects emit heat, but different objects emit heat
differently. This variation in thermal radiation can help scientists identify the minerals on Mars. Mini-TES will record the spectra of various rocks and soils. These spectra can be studied to determine the type of minerals and their abundances at selected locations. One particular goal will be to search for minerals that were formed by the action of water, such as carbonates and clays. Mini-TES will also look at the atmosphere of Mars and gather data on temperature, water vapor, and the abundance of dust.
Many of the minerals that formed rocks on Mars contain iron, and the soil is iron-rich. The Mössbauer Spectrometer is an instrument that was specially designed to study iron-bearing minerals. Because this science
instrument is so specialized, it can determine the composition and abundance of these minerals to a high level of accuracy. This ability can also help us understand the magnetic properties of surface materials.
The APXS determines the elemental chemistry of rocks and soils using alpha particles and X-rays. Alpha particles are emitted during radioactive decay and X-rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation, like light and
microwaves. The APXS carries a small alpha particle source. The alphas are emitted and bounce back from a science target into a detector in the APXS, along with some X-rays that are excited from the target in the process. The energy distribution of the alphas and X-rays measured by the detectors is analyzed to determine elemental composition. The elemental composition of a rock describes the amounts of different chemical elements that have come together to form all of the minerals within the rock. Knowing the elemental composition of martian rocks
provides scientists with information about the formation of the planet's crust, as well as any weathering that has taken place.
Mars is a dusty place and some of that dust is highly magnetic. Magnetic minerals carried in dust grains may be freeze-dried remnants of the planet´s watery past. A periodic examination of these particles and their patterns of accumulation on magnets of varying strength can reveal clues about their mineralogy and the planet´s geologic history.
Each rover has three sets of magnetic targets that will collect airborne dust for analysis by the science instruments. One set of magnets will be carried by the Rock Abrasion Tool. As it grinds into Martian rocks,
scientists will have the opportunity to study the properties of dust from these outer rock surfaces.
A second set of two magnets is mounted on the front of the rover at an angle so that non-magnetic particles will tend to fall off. These magnets will be reachable for analysis by the Mössbauer and APXS instruments. A third magnet is mounted on the top of the rover deck in view of the Pancam. This magnet is strong enough to deflect the paths of wind-carried, magnetic dust.
The Microscopic Imager is a combination of a microscope and a CCD camera that will provide information on the small-scale features of Martian rocks and soils. It will complement the findings of other science instruments by producing close-up views of surface materials. Some of those materials will be in their natural state, while others may be views of fresh surfaces exposed by the Rock Abrasion Tool.
The Rock Abrasion Tool is a powerful grinder, able to create a hole 45 millimeters (about 2 inches) in diameter and 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) deep into a rock on the Martian surface.
The RAT is located on the arm of the rover and weighs less than 720 grams (about 1.6 lbs). It uses three electric motors to drive rotating grinding teeth into the surface of a rock. Two grinding wheels rotate at high speeds. These wheels also rotate around each other at a much slower speed so that the two grinding wheels sweep the entire
cutting area. The RAT is able to grind through hard volcanic rock in about two hours.