Curiosity Lasers Zap First Martian Target
August 20, 2012

Curiosity Fires Laser And Sends Back Results

Watch the Video: ChemCam Field of View

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

You´re all alone on the surface of a bleak planet, you´re only able to travel at a snail´s pace, and the only contact you have with Earth is subject to a 14 minute delay. If ever there were a more appropriate time to fire off a laser with abandon, I can´t think of one.

Of course, this wasn´t simply a reckless blast for the fun of it; There was science to be performed, tests to be conducted, and information to be had.

The Mars Curiosity Rover fired off an onboard laser 30 times yesterday into a nearby rock, which was no bigger than an ordinary human fist. Curiosity, as you may remember, has been loaded with a Chemistry and Camera instrument, also known as ChemCam. With ChemCam, Curiosity can determine the make-up of rocks and examine how these rocks react to being at the business end of its laser.

Yesterday´s zapping, however, was more about calibration and target practice than gathering data, though the NASA scientists were still able to pull some information from the fist-sized rock they´ve dubbed “Coronation.”

“We got a great spectrum of Coronation – lots of signal,” said Roger Wiens, the principal investigator for ChemCam in a statement.

“Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it´s payoff time!”

Shortly after, NASA released a photo of the target rock, complete with a tiny pinpoint hole, the effects of Curiosity´s ChemCam Laser. Elsewhere in this picture is the silhouette of Curiosity, standing ominously over the rock it had just bested with its mighty laser.

ChemCam fired 30 pulses into Coronation in a ten-second span, each blast delivering more than one million watts of sheer energy into the rock. During each blast, NASA was able to gather data and record spectra. Now that the lasers have been fired and have been found to be in working order, NASA scientists will take a look at the data to determine what kind of changes Coronation has undergone after being used as target practice. These scientists are hopeful that there will be a different composition underneath the surface of Coronation, therefore helping them understand a piece of the geology of Mars and its makeup.

“It´s surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio,” said Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam deputy project scientist.

“It´s so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years.”

Elsewhere in the happenings of the Mars rover, NASA announced on Friday that Curiosity´s first assignment would be to report to the intersection of three types of terrain in the Gale Crater known as Glenelg.

This area is around 1,300 feet away from Curiosity´s landing site.

Once Curiosity arrives at Glenelg, it will begin drilling into the layered bedrock found in this area, according to NASA.

“With such a great landing spot in Gale Crater, we literally had every degree of the compass to choose from for our first drive. We had a bunch of strong contenders. It is the kind of dilemma planetary scientists dream of, but you can only go one place for the first drilling for a rock sample on Mars,” said John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory.

“That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration.”