The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry is called PIXL. PIXL has a tool called an X-ray spectrometer. It identifies chemical elements at a tiny scale. PIXL also has a camera that takes super close-up pictures of rock and soil textures. It can see features as small as a grain of salt! Together, this information helps scientists look for signs of past microbial life on Mars.
image of PIXL instrument
decorative gear graphic

Tech Specs

  • MAIN JOB: To measure the chemical makeup of rocks at a very fine scale
  • LOCATION: Mounted on the turret at the end of the robotic arm
  • MASS: Arm-mounted sensor head: Nearly 10 pounds (4.3 kilograms)
     Body-mounted electronics: About 6 pounds (2.6 kilograms)
     Calibration target: About 0.033 pounds (0.015 kilograms)

  • POWER: About 25 watts
  • VOLUME: Arm-mounted sensor head: approximately 8.5 by 10.5 by 9 inches
    (21.5 by 27 by 23 centimeters)
  • CALIBRATION TARGETS: Diameter of each of four disks:1.9 inches
    (5 millimeters)
     Pedestal base:15.3 by 1.18 inches
    (39 by 30 millimeters)

  • DATA RETURN: Approximately 16 megabits per experiment, or about 2 megabytes per day
image of Abigail Allwood
Abigail Allwood
Principal Investigator
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California

"If you are looking for signs of ancient life, you want to look at a small scale and get detailed information about chemical elements present."

-- Abigail Allwood

Did You Know?

PIXL: Did You Know?

Microbes change the texture and chemistry of their environment. Your mouth is one example! Think about the plaque your dentist scrapes off your teeth. That hard stuff is minerals left behind by millions of bacteria. It’s an example of a "biofilm." Biofilms form when a group of microbes stick together to form a surface. You can find biofilms on surfaces everywhere in nature. PIXL can detect signs of biofilms made by microbes in the Martian environment long ago. Rocks can preserve their texture and chemistry.

Five Things To Know
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PIXL is small and light
PIXL detects signs
of past life
PIXL seeks changes in textures and chemicals in Martian rocks and soil left behind by any ancient microbial life.
PIXL is compact
It's about the size of a lunchbox and weighs about 10 pounds. That's amazing - lab tools that do the same job are usually the size of a large beach cooler and weigh over 500
the super small
Its X-ray beam can focus on rock features as small as a grain of salt. That lets PIXL find any small traces of life that microbes maybe left behind.

PIXL is very flexible
Its X-ray beam moves as easily as a laser pointer in a scientist's hand. Tiny motors give it freedom of motion, like a mini version of the six-legged, motion-control system flight simulators use.
PIXL far exceeds
similar tools
PIXL detects over 20 chemical "fingerprints" - even when the amount is only a few parts per million. It finds the exact tiny spot in a rock where each chemical is.

The Story Behind the Name

PIXL's name refers to "pixel," the smallest digital point in an image. The pixel is at the heart of image processing and digital images, from space telescope pictures to rover "selfies." What makes PIXL special is its focus on some of the tiniest features on Mars! Along with a tip of the hat to its camera, the name "PIXL" also honors the "X" of its X-ray system.

The word "pixel" is a contraction of "picture element." The use of the word "pixel" traces back to research papers written in 1965 by digital imaging pioneer Frederic C. Billingsley of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL is also the home of the PIXL instrument for Mars 2020!