In the fall of 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory will embark on the next phase of NASA's Mars Exploration program, a robotic exploration in search of signs of life on Mars.
An array of advanced systems will collect rock and soil samples, analyzing minerals and elemental composition in search of evidence of water and ice in the geologic history of the Red Planet.
Searching for the building blocks of life, the mission will use a group of instruments to identify unique biosignatures and the isotopic composition of inorganic and organic carbon, particular elemental and mineralogical concentrations and abundances, and the attributes of unusual rock textures.
One tool, called the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, will analyze rock and soil samples by exposing the materials to alpha particles and X-rays emitted during the radioactive decay of the element curium.
Detectors will measure the energy released by emitting X-rays and enable scientists to identify elements present in the samples. Used in conjunction with other instruments on board the rover, such as the CheMin, the tests will help scientists understand what the materials are, how they were formed, and if it was later altered by wind, water, or ice.