Chew on This

Diane K. Fisher

The Mars robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are equipped with RATs, or Rock Abrasion Tools. Their purpose is to abrade the surface patina off the Mars rocks so that the alpha x-ray spectrometer can analyze the minerals inside the rocks, rather than just on the surface.

But future robotic missions to Mars will be asked to go even further below the surface. Scrapers and corers will gather rock samples of substantial size, that, in order to be analyzed by a spectrometer, will need to be crushed into a fine powder.

Looking down on the jaws of the Mars Rock Crusher,
we see a magnetite rock get crushed into smaller and smaller particles.

Crushing rocks on Mars? Now there's a problem that brings to mind a multitude of possible approaches: Whack them with a large hammer? Squeeze them until they explode? How about just chewing them up? It was with this latter metaphor that the planetary instrument engineers struck pay dirt - so to speak.

Thanks to NASA's Planetary Instrument Definition and Development Program, a small group of NASA engineers came up with the Mars Rock Crusher. Only six inches tall, it can chew the hardest rocks into a powder.

The Mars Rock Crusher has two metal plates that work sort of like our jaws. One plate stays still, while the other plate moves. Rocks are dropped into the jaw between the two plates. As one plate moves in and out (like a lower jaw), rocks are crushed between the two plates. The jaw opening is larger toward the top and smaller towards the bottom. So when larger rocks are crushed near the top, the pieces fall down into the narrower part of the jaw, where they are crushed again. This process repeats until the rock particles are small enough to fall through a slit where the two plates are closest.

Engineers have tested the Mars Rock Crusher with Earth rocks similar to those expected to be found on Mars. One kind of rock is hematite. The rusted iron in hematite and other rocks help give Mars its nickname 'The Red Planet.' Another kind of rock is magnetite, so-called because it is magnetic. Rocks made by volcanoes are called basalts. Some of the volcanoes on Mars may have produced basalts with a lot of a mineral called olivine. We call those olivine basalts, and the Rock Crusher chews them up nicely too.

Visit to read the latest about other NASA technologies for exploring other planets and improving life on this one.

This article was written by Diane K. Fisher and provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.