Sam Clegg

Los Alamos National Laboratory Senior Scientist Sam Clegg with a lab-based version of ChemCam – a device he worked on that is on the Curiosity rover that is currently on Mars.

The Perseverance rover is somewhere along its nearly seven-month trip to Mars, carrying with it a piece of machinery that was developed by someone with roots in the Yuba-Sutter area.

Los Alamos National Laboratory Senior Scientist Sam Clegg grew up in Yuba City and has worked at the lab since 2003. For most of the last 17 years he has been working with Los Alamos Principal Investigator Roger Wiens on a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). The technique reveals what elements are present in a sample by using a powerful laser that vaporizes a small amount of a material.

This isn’t his first time out.

Clegg worked on a chemistry and camera device or ChemCam that was mounted to the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in August of 2012. The ChemCam uses LIBS to identify the chemical and mineral composition of rocks and soils on Mars. Clegg said because Curiosity is still on Mars, he and the team at Los Alamos still analyze samples collected by ChemCam.

The technology used on the Curiosity rover was updated and improved for the Perseverance rover that launched on July 30. Instead of a ChemCam mounted to the rover, a SuperCam is on Perseverance. It examines rocks and soils with a camera, laser and spectrometers to seek organic compounds that could be related to past life on Mars.

Clegg said the SuperCam has LIBS, captures a color image and is equipped with a microphone that can pick up the pinging noise a material makes when the laser hits the sample, which can indicate what type of material is being analyzed.

The work from developing to getting the device on the rover was a lengthy process.

Around 2015, Clegg and Wiens put in a proposal to NASA to be able to work on and control the SuperCam, and after approval it took four to five years to build the instrument. The work that eventually led to the SuperCam began back when Clegg started working at Los Alamos in 2003. 

Now his work pays off.

Because of the pandemic, Clegg watched the launch from New Mexico instead of at Cape Canaveral, like he did for Curiosity.

“It’s very gratifying,” Clegg said. “... I can’t believe I get to do this.”

Perseverance is scheduled to land on Feb. 18, 2021, and in the meantime, Clegg said work is being done to make sure everything is calibrated properly to interpret results SuperCam captures once it touches down.

“It changes each mission, but the bottomline is that as the rover drives to new locations you’re starting to get a picture of the diversity of the planet,” Clegg said.

Clegg graduated from Yuba City High School in 1987 and said at the time he wanted to be a high school chemistry teacher like his teacher at the time, Dave Hummel. His plan was to go to Chico State and get a teaching degree. He did go to Chico State but during his time there he realized he enjoyed research and wanted to work in a lab. After Chico he got his master’s degree in chemistry from San Jose State and PhD in chemistry from Indiana University.

He said while he was always interested in possibly working with NASA it seemed unlikely to become a reality.

“I can’t say that it was a goal in high school and in this particular case we had the right technique to work on the right rovers at the right time,” Clegg said.

Recommended for you