Collective Voice: More Martian Science!

Very early on Monday August 6, 2012 space junkies were introduced to NASA’s newest interplanetary superstar—the Mars Science Laboratory’s rover, Curiosity. Safely nestled within Curiosity is the Sample Analysis at Mars—SAM for short. According to NASA’s website, Curiosity and SAM’s mission is to “investigate the chemical and isotopic composition of the Martian atmosphere and volatiles extracted from powdered solid surface samples.” To achieve this SAM contains three analytical instruments: a six-column gas chromatograph, a quadrupole mass spectrometer, and a turnable laser spectrometer. All three of these of instruments have a direct link to the historical instruments in the collection here at CHF.

The mass spectrometer in SAM is not the first mass spec to go to Mars. On September 3, 1976 the Viking 2 Lander landed on Mars. Contained on Viking 2 was a mass spec unit similar to this one developed by A.O. Nier. Nier was an American physicist who specialized in mass spectroscopy and the study of uranium. He was involved in the Manhattan Project, mainly in designing the spectrographs used by the scientists creating the atomic bomb. After the war Nier shifted the focus of his research to space science and the noble gasses, designing the miniature mass spectrometers used on Viking landers to sample and measure the atmosphere of Mars.

A. O. Nier’s atmospheric  mass spectrometer, c. 1972. (CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias)

Chromatography as an analytical tool dates back to 1903, when Russian botanist Mikhail Tsvet first separated plant pigments using what is called paper chromatography. Gas chromatography became a viable analytical tool in the late 1940s, and in 1955 the Perkin-Elmer Corporation introduced the first mass produced gas chromatograph, the PE Model 154 Vapor Fractometer.

Perkin-Elmer Model 154. (CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias)

Spectroscopy is the study of the relationship between energy and matter and is a general term used to describe a wide variety of experiments. During World War II, the U.S. government formed the Office of Rubber Reserve to help develop a better process for the creation of synthetic rubber. The office brought in some of the best minds in the petrochemical and instrumentation fields to work on the project and which resulted in two separate collaborations. The first, between Robert Brittan of Shell Oil Company and Arnold O. Beckman of National Technical Laboratories (later Beckman Instruments), resulted in the development of the Beckman IR1. The IR1 was given an AAA classification, which meant that only those customers with a matching AAA-rating from the government could purchase one. As a result, very few were produced. In the meantime, the Perkin-Elmer Corporation teamed up with American Cyanamid to develop the Model 12, which was easier to purchase and was a better overall instrument, mostly due to its compactness.

Beckman Model IR1. (Courtesy of Beckman Coulter Corporation/Gregory Tobias)

Perkin-Elmer Model 12. (CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias)

Both the IR1 and the Model 12 are currently on display in CHF’s museum along with two environmental monitoring instruments on loan from NASA.

Rosie Cook is the registrar and assistant curator for the Museum at CHF. Collective Voice, dispatches from CHF's collections team, appears every second Tuesday on Periodic Tabloid.

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Posted In: History | Technology

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