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Mars Science Laboratory

Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS)

Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer
This picture shows the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer used on the Mars Exploration Rovers. The improved APXS instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory rover would be able to detect elemental composition more quickly and work both day and night. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Max Planck Institut für Chemie/University of Guelph

The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer measurse the abundance of chemical elements in rocks and soils. Funded by the Canadian Space Agency, the APXS is placed in contact with rock and soil samples on Mars and exposes the material to alpha particles and X-rays emitted during the radioactive decay of the element curium. X-rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation, like light and microwaves.

Alpha particles are helium nuclei, consisting of 2 protons and 2 neutrons. When X-rays and alpha particles interact with atoms in the surface material, they knock electrons out of their orbits, producing an energy release by emitting X-rays that can be measured with detectors. The X-ray energies enable scientists to identify all important rock-forming elements, from sodium to heavier elements.

The APXS takes measurements both day and night. Its sensor head is designed to be smaller than a soda can and contains a highly sensitive X-ray detector in the middle of an array of curium sources. The longer the instrument is held in place on the surface of a rock or soil sample, the more clearly the signal from the sample can be determined. Most APXS measurements take two to three hours to reveal all elements, including small amounts of trace elements. Ten minutes of operation is sufficient for a quick look at major elements.

As a contact instrument, the APXS is designed to work in concert with other payload elements on the instrument arm and in the body of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, such as the CheMin instrument and the Dust Removal Tool (brush). Scientists use the APXS to help characterize and select rock and soil samples and then examine the interiors of the rocks following brushing. By analyzing the elemental composition of rocks and soils, scientists seek to understand how the material formed and if it was later altered by wind, water, or ice. The APXS on NASA's two Mars Exploration Rovers has already provided evidence that water once played a major role in Mars' geologic past.

Two earlier missions to Mars carried previous versions of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. The first was the Alpha Proton X-Ray Spectrometer, launched to Mars on the Pathfinder mission in late 1996. The second was the APXS, on board both the Mars Exploration Rovers that arrived on the red planet in January, 2004.

In addition to the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, major organizations involved in developing the APXS include the University of Guelph; MDA Space Missions; the University of California, San Diego; and Cornell University.

Portrait of APXS on Mars
This image shows the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on NASA's Curiosity rover, with the Martian landscape in the background.