ALPHA PARTICLE SPECTROMETER
Prospector's Alpha Particle Spectrometer (APS) will detect alpha particles
emitted by radioactive gases, such as radon and polonium, leaking out of
the lunar interior. While the Moon currently lacks volcanoes, it does appear
to vent gases such as radon , nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. The APS will
search for these outgassing events by detecting alpha particles. An alpha
particle is essentially the nucleus of a helium atom: two protons and two
neutrons bound together. Like gamma rays, alpha particles escape from radioactive
elements as part of their natural decay process. The alpha particles are
emitted with a precise energy that serves as a fingerprint for the atom
from which they came. Inside the APS are ten separate wafers of silicon.
Silicon, a semiconductive material, conducts electrical charge only minimally.
For that reason, however, it produces a high-resolution signal, since it
effectively blocks out most extraneous, background charge. When an alpha
particle hits a silicon wafer, it creates a small track of charge. When
a high voltage is applied to the silicon wafer, the alpha particle's charge
is funneled into an amplifier (an aluminum disk atop the silicon), where
it is collected. Since that pulse of charge is directly proportional to
the signature energy of the alpha particle, scientists can infer the identity
of the element which emitted the alpha particle.
Alpha Particle Spectrometer
Image courtesy of
Los Alamos National Laboratory
The APS instrument contains ten such silicon detectors, each sandwiched
between gold and aluminum disks, and arranged on five out of six sides of
a cube, enabling nearly a complete field of detection.
The detection of gases will depend very much on whether any outgassing events
occur while Lunar Prospector is in orbit, and how many there are. Of course,
the longer the mission lasts, the more events scientists are likely to see.
Also, because the outgassing events are localized, the precision of the
data will improve considerably if, as currently planned, Lunar Prospector
has enough fuel after the first year to drop to a lower orbit 6 miles above
the surface. (For a rough terrestrial analogy, from the higher orbit Lunar
Prospector would be able to say that a volcano has erupted in the state
of Washington. >From the lower orbit, it would be able to say which volcano.)
* The Alpha Particle Spectrometer weighs 9 pounds (4 kilograms), consumes
7 watts of power and produces data at a rate of 181 bits per second.
Go to Alpha Particle Spectrometer
Results | Go to Instrument Introduction