Weather update: Forecast for Cape Canaveral is still looking good for Saturday. There is a cold front that might possibly cause some problems, but forecasters put the probability of good launch weather still up around 70%
Yesterday we talked about the weather measurement experiments on Curiosity: the REMS package. Today we’ll focus an experiment that is going to measure the water and mineral content of Mars just below the surface. The name of the instrument is DAN, for Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons. The name may sound complicated, but the science behind the instrument is actually a simple idea.
DAN works in a quite ingenious way. If you fire high energy neutrons at a material then those neutrons will interact with the atomic nuclei in the material and either be absorbed or scattered in a certain direction. As it turns out, materials containing lots of hydrogen (which is typically locked up in either water or minerals) will slow down these high energy neutrons very efficiently and as a result the neutrons that are scattered will tend to be much lower energy than from regions with less hydrogen. That’s the basis of the experiment: fire neutrons at the ground and see what type of neutrons come back to your detector. If you get lots of low energy neutrons it means there’s a lot of water and minerals down there.
Life is always complicated though. So the big problem for Curiosity is that Mars is actually being bombarded constantly by cosmic rays which can create fast moving neutrons in the Martian surface. So any experiment you do has to be able to filter this effect out. DAN will actually do that using two detectors, one of which will block the low energy neutrons while the other will measure all the neutrons (including those generated by the cosmic rays). Subtract the two signals and you get the amount of low energy neutrons that are coming back.
How will DAN actually create the neutrons it fires into the ground? It will do so using a nuclear reaction of two types of hydrogen isotopes (tritium and deuterium) that will produce a helium nucleus plus a neutron as a result. This fusion reaction (deuterium is fired at a source containing tritium) will be very precisely controlled to produce a short pulse of neutrons that lasts about one millionth of a second. Once the neutrons have been fired then DAN switches over to follow the returning neutrons using its detectors. It will take data from 1 microsecond after the pulse through to about 10 milliseconds later.
But the neat thing about using a pulse is that you can figure out the distribution of water below the surface. The basic idea is you know exactly when the neutrons were fired and when the scattered neutrons were detected. Depending upon the depth of the water/mineral concentration the scattered neutrons will show up either earlier or later and in different amounts. From this time dependent signal we’ll be able to figure out just how deep the water is (at least down to about ~0.5m, the limit of what DAN can probe).
DAN’s overall role in MSL is pretty important. It’s going to provide a very clear picture of the overall water/mineral content just below the surface wherever Curiosity goes. It’s got over 10 million shots stored, so there isn’t too much worry about it being “used up” too quickly. It can also be used during traverses as well, there’s no need to stop and take a measurement. And on top of figuring out the subsurface water, DAN can also be used to look at the overall flux of neutron radiation background in the Mars environment. It’s a pretty neat little instrument.
Tomorrow: The impressive but risky descent…