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Curiosity's Big Gun Readied For Use

The Mars Science Laboratory rover ‘Curiosity’ is set to use its Chemistry Camera or ‘ChemCam’ on rocks. This tool is the most powerful laser ever employed on a planetary mission and may help scientists determine whether-or-not the Red Plaent ever harbored life. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity is getting ready to use her laser cannon. Actually the rover is being prepared to employ the Chemistry and Camera instrument or “ChemCam.” The one-ton rover’s scientists and engineers have even picked out the first destination that they want the six-wheeled Curiosity to visit first, a little spot dubbed – Glenelg.

Glenelg is a kind of crossroads of geology, with three different types of terrain coming together in one area. 

This mosaic image shows part of the left side of NASA’s Curiosity rover and two blast marks from the descent stage’s rocket engines. The images that were used to make the mosaic were obtained by the rover’s Navigation cameras on Aug. 7 PDT (Aug. 8 EDT). The rim of Gale Crater is the lighter colored band across the horizon. The back of the rover is to the left. The blast marks can be seen in the middle of the image. Several small bits of rock and soil, which were made airborne by the rocket engines, are visible on the rover’s top deck. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“With such a great landing spot in Gale Crater, we literally had every degree of the compass to choose from for our first drive,” Grotzinger said. “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. That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration.”

Curiosity will not have to venture very far to reach its first destination; Glenelg is just 1,300 feet (about 400 meters) from where the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) currently sits. Glenelg is perfect for Curiosity to test out its equipment on as it is comprised of layered bedrock, exactly the type of material the rover was sent to Gale crater and the adjacent Mt. Sharp to study.

Curiosity has had its Mastcams tested out, this image was taken by the rover’s left Mastcam. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

“We’re about ready to load our new destination into our GPS and head out onto the open road,” Grotzinger said. “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.”

Before MSL takes its first trip on the Red Planet mission managers will test out the ChemCam to make sure it is functioning properly. On Saturday, Aug. 18 the ChemCam is scheduled to be activated. It will be the first time that such a strong laser has ever been used in the name of planetary science.

Curiosity will use its ChemCam laser on a rock dubbed N165 and can be seen in the upper right of this image. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL

Compared to some of the other designations given to Martian rocks (previous Martian missions have driven around geological formations named Big Joe, Yogi, Sushi and Ice Cream) Curiosity’s first target has been named N165. It is about 3 inch wide and is approximately 10 feet away.

“Rock N165 looks like your typical Mars rock,” said Roger Wiens, principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “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.”

Curiosity is also having its wheels warmed up for her upcoming first roll. Each of the rover’s six wheels is being turned side-to-side with the wheels eventually pointing straight ahead. The Mini Cooper-sized rover will then be driven forward and backward to test out its driving capabilities.

This image of the crater wall is north of the landing site, or behind the rover. Here, a network of valleys believed to have formed by water erosion enters Gale Crater from the outside. This is the first view scientists have had of a fluvial system – one relating to a river or stream — from the surface of Mars. Known and studied since the 1970s beginning with NASA’s Viking missions, such networks date from a period in Martian history when water flowed freely across the surface. The main channel deposit seen here resembles a dirt road ascending into the mountains, which are actually the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“There will be a lot of important firsts that will be taking place for Curiosity over the next few weeks, but the first motion of its wheels, the first time our roving laboratory on Mars does some actual roving, that will be something special,” said Michael Watkins, mission manager for Curiosity from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011. It arrived at its destination on Mars on Aug. 6 at 1:32 a.m. EDT. Since that time NASA scientists have been checking out the rover’s systems in preparation for its scientific mission. Curiosity carries a $2.5 billion price tag along with a plutonium power source that should allow the rover to explore Mars for at least two years.

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