Curiosity Mars Rover Prepares To Roll Out, Fire Most Powerful Laser Used Off Of Earth

By Max Eddy on August 18, 2012 1:20 PM EDT

NASA ChemCam
Atop its mast, the ChemCam is the most powerful laser ever fired off of Earth. (Photo: NASA)

Since its landing on Mars two weeks ago, NASA's Curiosity rover has been sitting still and sending back photos of its surroundings. Yesterday, NASA said that it's getting ready to get moving and to test out the rover's onboard laser.

The rover team announced that they had chosen the rover's first destination on the Red Planet: a region called Glenelg. According to NASA, this patch of Mars some 1,300 feet from the rover's landing site contains three kinds of terrain. This gives scientists the opportunity to investigate many different geological features in one area.

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One of these features, a patch of layered bedrock, has reportedly been earmarked as the first location for Curiosity to take drill samples. Before any of that can happen, however, Curiosity's Earth-bound operators will have the rover carry out a brief trip of just ten feet. They'll also test the mobility of each of Curiosity's six wheels.

"We're about ready to load our new destination into our GPS and head out onto the open road," Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger said in a NASA press release. "Our challenge is there is no GPS on Mars, so we have a roomful of rover-driver engineers providing our turn-by-turn navigation for us."

Curiosity will do at least one scientific experiment before heading out toward Glenelg, when it fires its powerful ChemCam laser at a nearby rock.

NASA says that the first firing will be the first firing of such a powerful laser off the Earth. "Rock N165 looks like your typical Mars rock, about three inches wide. It's about 10 feet away," said ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens. "We are going to hit it with 14 millijoules of energy 30 times in 10 seconds. It is not only going to be an excellent test of our system, it should be pretty cool too."

Blasting rocks with the ChemCam laser is more than just fun. Mounted on the rover's mast, resembling a single red "eye," the ChemCam is an advanced tool for determining the composition of rocks. Using laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, small samples are blasted by laser from up to 23 feet away. The light resulting from these blasts is recorded and analyzed by the rover, which can determine the elemental composition of samples from the atomic emission lines produced.

According to NASA, the ChemCam firing is expected to happen sometime tonight.

In addition to these exciting plans for the rover, NASA flight director and "Mohawk Guy" Bobak Ferdowsi appeared on a video update for the rover. Truly, these are exciting times for NASA planetary science.

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