NASA’s Curiosity Rover Fires ChemCam Laser, Zaps First Martian Rock

By Amir Khan on August 20, 2012 8:31 AM EDT

Curiosity
NASA's Curiosity rover, which touched down on Mars two weeks ago, fired its rock-vaporizing laser for the first time on Sunday in a target-practice test to show that the rover is truly ready to start examining the red planet. (Photo: Creative Commons)

NASA's Curiosity rover, which touched down on Mars two weeks ago, fired its rock-vaporizing laser for the first time on Sunday in a target-practice test to show that the rover is truly ready to start examining the red planet.

The rover landed in the equatorial depression called Gale Crater, and will attempt to determine whether Mars could have ever supported life. The laser, called the ChemCam laser, is one of the variety of instruments Curiosity is equipped with to accomplish that task.

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To test the ChemCam laser, NASA targeted a 2.5 inch (7cm) piece of basalt they dubbed "Coronation." The laser zapped Coronation with 30 pulses of infrared light over a 10-second period, according to the report.

"Each pulse delivered more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second," the report said. "The energy from the laser excited atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma."

The resulting sparks are observed through a telescope, and based on what colors are present, scientists can determine the rock's chemical composition.

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation - lots of signal," Roger Wiens, ChemCam principal investigator and researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in a NASA statement. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's pay-off time."

NASA will examine the results of the test further to determine whether the signal changed as the laser burrowed through Coronation's coatings and further into the rock.

"Coatings can tell you about, say, the weather or what has happened to a rock through the eons," Wiens told BBC News. "We will look at the first few laser shots and see if there is any difference as we move further into the rock."

The rover took off from the Kennedy Space Center in November and landed on Mars on August 6. The $2.5 billion project will spend the next two years on Mars looking for evidence of carbon compounds and signs that the planet was once, or is, habitable.

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