The mass spectrometers built at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., were running three experiments of the same kind at different places in space, the space agency said Friday.
All flying on NASA missions, the spectrometers were designed to take in atmospheric, rock or soil samples and identify particular molecules in them.
"At the moon and Mars and part way in between, we had three mass spectrometers happily operating in their other-worldly environments or being checked out for the first time in space on the same day," said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for the instruments.
That's something that doesn't happen often because of the operating schedules for the three devices, which must take turns with other instruments on their respective spacecraft, NASA said.
One is aboard NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, in orbit around the moon.
A second is en route to Mars with the agency's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission, and was turned on Dec. 4 for the first time to measure calibration gases within the instrument.
The third is on the surface of Mars with NASA's Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover, helping analyze multiple samples of the atmosphere and soils and rocks to help scientists understand how habitable Mars was in the past.
"With these studies, mass spectrometry is helping us piece together the histories of the moon and Mars and offers a vision of their futures," Mahaffy said. "It's a perfect example of how invaluable these instruments are for space science."
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