Roger Wiens began his space career at age 11 when he and his brother built their own telescope and placed it on a fence post — just in time to see Mars approach Earth.

"We started to sketch the features of Mars that we could see through this telescope," Wiens said in this episode of Here's an Idea, our exclusive Tech Briefs podcast series.

Learn how Wiens' space journey began, from drawing Mars in the neighborhood to designing the instruments that will launch to Mars itself.

In this special edition of Here's an Idea, Wiens, a fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, explains how he and his team created the SuperCam. The "Super" instrument will be aboard the 2020 Mars rover, ready to find and vaporize rocks.

By studying Martian soil, and bringing samples back to Earth, we'll have a better understanding of past life on the Red Planet.

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Episode Highlights:

  • (1:13) What is the SuperCam? “It looks out at targets up to 25 feet away from the rover...or even way out to infinity.”
  • (6:30) How the Idea Began: “We thought we were really proposing too much. NASA’s not going to believe that we can pull this off.”
  • (13:45) Testing the SuperCam: “We often talk about that as ’shake and bake.’ We vibrate the instrument as it would experience during a launch.” 
  • (15:58) Why is the SuperCam so Important? “This will be the first rover to return samples to Earth.” 
  • (18:22) What kinds of advice would you give aspiring engineers? “Be creative."
  • (24:23) The Beginning of a Journey to Mars: I actually had the opportunity in graduate school to study pieces of Mars…” 
  • (26:13) Learning from a Failed Landing: “We watched that capsule falling from space down to Earth for a full 5 minutes.”
  • (28:00) The Day Curiosity Landed: “Personally, I had a pit in my stomach…”
  • (29:13) The Best Part of the Job: “I love creating new things that we can use to study the universe, to study the planets…”

Want to see the SuperCam? Scroll down the page to see episode highlights, videos, and images.   

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Watch the above Los Alamos National Laboratory video, where Roger Wiens explains the components of the SuperCam.

SuperCam Images:

An illustration of the SuperCam as it zaps rocks to search for signs of past life on Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover’s SuperCam instrument will have both infrared and green laser beams for remote analysis of chemistry by laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and mineral analyses with remote Raman spectroscopy. The red and green beams are fired at different times. The various green beams represent a scan of the target, performed using sequential laser pulses. (Image Source: Planetary.org, LANL)

The SuperCam parts: A cut-away view of the transmission spectrometer used for remote Raman spectroscopy on SuperCam. Light enters from an optical fiber bundle on which the aperture slit is mounted. The dichroic (left) splits light into two traces. Of the two side-by-side gratings, one is a compound, splitting the light into a third trace, all of which are intensified and collected by a single CCD detector which reads them in three sequential digitization windows. (Image Source: LANL)

 

The Perseverance rover
Roger Wiens, with the SuperCam instrument.  
Celebration as the Curiosity rover lands in August 2012. 

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To learn more about the Mars 2020 mission, read our Special Series: Mars 2020 – Perseverance to the Red Planet.