Determination of the chemical composition of Martian soil and rocks: The alpha proton X ray spectrometer


  • R. Rieder,

  • H. Wänke,

  • T. Economou,

  • A. Turkevich


The alpha proton X ray spectrometer (APXS) for the Mars Pathfinder mission is designed to provide a complete and detailed analysis of chemical elements in Martian soil and rocks near the landing site. The APXS instrument is carried on the Pathfinder Microrover, which will provide transportation to places of interest on the Martian surface. It consists of a complex sensor head, mounted on a simple but sophisticated APXS deployment mechanism (ADM) outside the warm electronics box (WEB) of the Microrover, and the instrument electronics, mounted inside the WEB. The ADM permits the instrument sensor head to be placed against soil and rock samples in arbitrary positions, ranging from horizontal to vertical, in order to perform in situ analysis. The possibility to transport the APXS to an arbitrary location, preselected on Earth, and to perform in situ analysis there, constitutes one of the most exciting aspects of the Pathfinder mission. The principle of the APXS technique is based on three interactions of alpha particles from a radioisotope source with matter: simple Rutherford backscattering, production of protons from (α, p) reactions on light elements, and generation of characteristic X rays upon recombination of atomic shell vacancies created by a bombardment. Measurement of the intensities and energy distributions of these three components yields information on the abundance of chemical elements in the sample. In terms of sensitivity and selectivity, data are partly redundant and partly complementary: alpha backscattering is superior for light elements (C, O), while proton emission is mainly sensitive to Na, Mg, Al, Si, S, and X ray emission is more sensitive to heavier elements (Na to Fe and beyond). A combination of all three measurements enables determination of all elements (with the exception of H and He) present at concentration levels above typically a fraction of 1%.