Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity has now been on the surface of the Red Planet for two weeks. It still hasn’t moved an inch, but it has taken a lot of pretty photos while surveying its surroundings (below), and yesterday it performed the first firing of its its nuclear-powered, more-than-a-million-watt laser.
The laser is part of its Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam for short. A few days ago, a fist-sized rock near Curiosity’s landing spot — dubbed “Coronation” — was chosen as the first scientific test target for ChemCam’s laser. After calibrating the laser on a special target with 10 different material “presets” (pictured below), ChemCam fired 30 nanosecond pulses of its more-than-a-million-watt laser at Coronation (pictured above). This is the first time that we’ve fired such a laser on another planet.
When the laser hits its target, it immediately melts into plasma, giving off a very specific spectrum of light. This spectrum is analyzed by ChemCam’s three spectrometers, and the data is beamed to NASA and forwarded to the Los Alamos National Laboratory for analysis. This entire process is called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), and it should give us much greater knowledge about the geological makeup of Mars. “[The data it returns] is so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years,” says ChemCam deputy project scientist Sylvestre Maurice.
Over the next few days, having finished its firmware upgrade , Curiosity will begin to prepare for its first expedition to a location nicknamed Glenelg. First Curiosity will waggle
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