In 2005, the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launched with an advanced dynamic spectrometer built to search for indications of past and present water on Mars. The MRO’s data is still being studied today and is being used to plan future missions, including the NASA Mars 2020 mission.
CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) is the name of the visible-infrared spectrometer aboard the MRO used to search for materials that signal the presence of water. CRISM also monitors ice and dust particles in Mars’ atmosphere to help scientists better understand the planet’s climate and seasons.
How the CRISM Imaging Spectrometer Works
CRISM is capable of measuring visible and infrared electromagnetic radiation in 6.55-nanometer increments. It has a range of 362 to 3920 nanometers. Visible wavelengths let CRISM detect minerals influenced by iron such as oxides, and infrared wavelengths allow it to identify materials like carbonates, sulfates, and phyllosilicates.
In multispectral untargeted mode, CRISM was able to scan nearly half of the Mars surface in just a few months and almost the rest of the planet within one year. Its hyperspectral targeted mode can scan an area that measures 18 km wide by 10,800 km long.
This remarkable research tool combines three advanced devices: the optical sensor unit (OSU) includes the optics, a gimbal, and detectors for both visible and infrared images. As well, three cryocoolers and a radiator plate keep the temperature of CRISM’s infrared detector at -173 degrees Celsius.
The gimbal motor electronics (GME) powers and commands the gimbal. This pivotal system analyzes data using its angular position encoder. Then, CRISM’s data processing unit (DPU) accepts and processes commands from the spacecraft. The DPU also communicates data from the OSU to the spacecraft.
NASA Mars 2020 to Build on Past Discoveries
Highly anticipated for years now, the NASA Mars 2020 mission is scheduled to launch in July or August later this year. The mission will focus on the study of life throughout the universe, and NASA hopes this historic mission will build on CRISM’s discoveries. In particular, a few years ago, CRISM spotted carbonates in a bathtub ring formation near the Jezero Crater. Partially influenced by these findings, scientists suggested this would be an ideal location for the Mars 2020 rover to explore.
To confirm the usefulness of exploring this specific area, scientists spent years analyzing the data they received from CRISM. Since it is an extremely sensitive device, any data that is even slightly misinterpreted could result in billions of dollars being spent without getting clear answers. Mapping the planet’s surface accurately is also essential to NASA’s human-crewed mission to Mars slated for 2033, yet another example of how important CRISM’s analysis is for NASA’s future plans.