A small Mountain View-made device will pry out the long-secret mysteries of "The Red Planet" when it lands on Mars in August to analyze the rocks and soils of its faraway landscape.
More than 150 million miles from home, the breadbox-sized instrument built by NASA Ames geologist David Blake seeks to identify and quantify the minerals in samples collected by the rover Curiosity, aboard the Mars Science Laboratory.
It will analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as Curiosity explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover.
The minerals will tell scientists how the red rock was formed — critical information to understand the creation of the planet's 4 billion-year-old environment.
The tool's foray into space is the culmination of a 22-year-long quest for Blake, a Los Altos resident educated at Los Altos High and Stanford University.
"We want to find an environment where life could have existed," said Blake.
But his immediate goal is more practical.
"It's got to work. After that, it's all gravy," he said.
Some of the samples will come as Curiosity roves inside a deep crater, some from its journeys through canyons and some from along the route of an ascent up a Martian mountain, higher than Mt. Whitney's 14,500 feet.
The technical approach, which uses X-ray diffraction, is the gold standard on Earth for identifying minerals. But the tools are huge — about the size of refrigerators.
Blake's goal was to shrink it down to a size that could be flown through space and land safely.
So he built X-ray tubes, normally the size of a pepperoni sausage, the size of small salt shakers. The 28,000-volt power supply was also miniaturized.
And all of the mechanisms, which normally move, were made stationary. So rock analyzer uses a fixed "charged coupling device," common in consumer digital cameras, to photograph the X-rays.