Curiosity fires its first laser on Mars

In another milestone for NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, a powerful laser was fired on a nearby rock, vaporising its outer layers for spectroscopic examination.

The Curiosity Mars rover fires its ChemCam laser at a rock outcrop in this artist's concept, showing how the remote-sensing tool might be used during science operations.
(Credit: NASA)

The Curiosity rover successfully test-fired a powerful laser at a nearby rock on Sunday, blasting it with rapid-fire, million-watt pulses that vaporised the outer layers for spectroscopic analysis.

The Chemistry and Camera instrument, known as ChemCam, hit the target rock, dubbed "Coronation", with 30 pulses of laser light over 10 seconds, according to a NASA update. Each pulse lasted about five one-billionths of a second.

The laser beam created a visible spark of electrically charged plasma that was then observed by the instrument's telescope. The telescope, mounted on Curiosity's camera mast, fed the light through optical fibres to three spectrometers that are designed to record 6144 different wavelengths of infrared, visible and ultraviolet light.

In a before-and-after image released by NASA, a tiny spot could be seen in an 8-millimetre by 8-millimetre inset that showed exactly where the laser beam hit.

A rock near the Curiosity rover, dubbed "Coronation", was the first target for the mobile science lab's ChemCam laser. The laser beam vaporized a tiny area of the rock, creating a visible plasma that was telescopically studied by the instrument's three spectrometers to determine its composition.
(Credit: NASA)

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation, lots of signal," Roger Wiens, the ChemCam principal investigator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, 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 payoff time."

Deputy project scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie in Toulouse, France, said he was surprised that "the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth".

"It's so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam, in the next two years," he said.

Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy is a technique used on Earth to study the composition of targets in environments that do not lend themselves to direct, hands-on examination. NASA said that the tests on Sunday in Gale Crater on Mars marked the first time the technique has been used on another planet.

While the test was primarily intended to help the science team characterise the complex instrument's aiming and performance, the data generated may provide immediate insights. Scientists plan to look for possible changes indicating differences between dust on the surface of the rock and its interior.

ChemCam was designed and built at Los Alamos and is a joint project between the US Department of Energy and the French national space agency. It is one of 10 state-of-the-art instruments making up Curiosity's science payload that will look for carbon compounds and signs of past or present habitability, during the rover's planned two-year mission.


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