Gamma-ray spectrometers have been widely used for the elemental and isotopic analysis of airless bodies in the Solar System, especially the Moon and Mars. These surfaces are subjected to a continual bombardment of high-energy cosmic rays, which excite nuclei in them to emit characteristic gamma-rays which can be detected from orbit. Thus an orbiting instrument can in principle map the surface distribution of the elements for an entire planet. Examples include the mapping of 20 elements observed in the exploration of Mars, the Eros asteroid and the Moon. They are usually associated with neutron detectors that can look for water and ice in the soil by measuring neutrons. They are able to measure the abundance and distribution of about 20 primary elements of the periodic table, including silicon, oxygen, iron, magnesium, potassium, aluminum, calcium, sulfur, and carbon. Knowing what elements are at or near the surface will give detailed information about how planetary bodies have changed over time. To determine the elemental makeup of the Martian surface, the Mars experiment used a gamma ray spectrometer and two neutron detectors.
GRS instruments supply data on the distribution and abundance of chemical elements, much as the Lunar Prospector mission did on the moon. In this case, the chemical element thorium was mapped, with higher concentrations shown in yellow/orange/red in the left-hand side image shown on the right.
When exposed to cosmic rays (charged particles in space that come from the stars, including our sun), chemical elements in soils and rocks emit uniquely identifiable signatures of energy in the form of gamma rays. The gamma ray spectrometer looks at these signatures, or energies, coming from the elements present in the target soil.
By measuring gamma rays coming from the target body, it is possible to calculate the abundance of various elements and how they are distributed around the planet's surface. Gamma rays, emitted from the nuclei of atoms, show up as sharp emission lines on the instrument's spectrum output. While the energy represented in these emissions determines which elements are present, the intensity of the spectrum reveals the elements concentrations. Spectrometers are expected to add significantly to the growing understanding of the origin and evolution of planets like Mars and the processes shaping them today and in the past.
How are gamma rays and neutrons produced by cosmic rays? Incoming cosmic rays--some of the highest-energy particles--collide with the nucleus of atoms in the soil. When nuclei are hit with such energy, neutrons are released, which scatter and collide with other nuclei. The nuclei get "excited" in the process, and emit gamma rays to release the extra energy so they can return to their normal rest state. Some elements like potassium, uranium, and thorium are naturally radioactive and give off gamma rays as they decay, but all elements can be excited by collisions with cosmic rays to produce gamma rays. The HEND and Neutron Spectrometers on GRS directly detect scattered neutrons, and the gamma sensor detects the gamma rays.
By measuring neutrons, it is possible to calculate the abundance of hydrogen, thus inferring the presence of water. The neutron detectors are sensitive to concentrations of hydrogen in the upper meter of the surface. Like a virtual shovel "digging into" the surface, the spectrometer will allow scientists to peer into this shallow subsurface of Mars and measure the existence of hydrogen. Since hydrogen is most likely present in the form of water ice, the spectrometer will be able to measure directly the amount of permanent ground ice and how it changes with the seasons.
GRS will supply data similar to that of the successful Lunar Prospector mission, which told us how much hydrogen, and thus water, is likely on the Moon.
The gamma ray spectrometer used on the Odyssey spacecraft consists of four main components: the gamma sensor head, the neutron spectrometer, the high energy neutron detector, and the central electronics assembly. The sensor head is separated from the rest of the spacecraft by a 6.2 meter (20 ft) boom, which was extended after Odyssey entered the mapping orbit at Mars. This maneuver is done to minimize interference from any gamma rays coming from the spacecraft itself. The initial spectrometer activity, lasting between 15 and 40 days, performed an instrument calibration before the boom was deployed. After about 100 days of the mapping mission, the boom was deployed and remained in this position for the duration of the mission. The two neutron detectors-the neutron spectrometer and the high-energy neutron detector-are mounted on the main spacecraft structure and operated continuously throughout the mapping mission.
The Gamma-Ray Spectrometer weighs 30.5 kilograms (67.2 lb) and uses 32 watts of power. Along with its cooler, the it measures 468 by 534 by 604 mm (18.4 by 21.0 by 23.8 in). The detector is a photodiode made of 1.2 kg germanium crystal, reverse biased to about 3 kilovolts, mounted at the end of a six-meter boom to minimize interferences from the gamma radiation produced by the spacecraft itself. Its spatial resolution is about 300 km.
The neutron spectrometer is 173 by 144 by 314 mm (6.8 by 5.7 by 12.4 in).
The high-energy neutron detector measures 303 by 248 by 242 mm (11.9 by 9.8 by 9.5 in). The instrument's central electronics box is 281 by 243 by 234 mm (11.1 by 9.6 by 9.2 in).