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Curiosity Fires High-Powered Laser in Preparation for Science Mission

This composite image, with magnified insets, depicts the first laser test by the Chemistry and Camera, or ChemCam, instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. The composite incorporates a Navigation Camera image taken prior to the test, with insets taken by the camera in ChemCam. The circular insert highlights the rock before the laser test. The square inset is further magnified and processed to show the difference between images taken before and after the laser interrogation of the rock. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

Curiosity fired the most powerful laser ever deployed to another world yesterday on the surface of Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory rover’s Chemistry and Camera instrument or “ChemCam” was used on a rock dubbed “Coronation.” The one ton rover fired its laser at the fist-sized rock for about 10 seconds.

During this period some 30 pulses took place, each pulse pounding the rock with approximately one million watts of power. Each of these pulses lasted for about five one-billionths of a second.

ChemCam works by exciting atoms within the rock, converting them to an ionized, glowing plasma. ChemCam captures the light from this plasma and then studies it using three spectrometers (devices that determine a material’s composition by the color or spectrum of the wavelength of the light given off from that material). The wavelengths that the spectrometers focus in on are ultraviolet, visible and infrared.

“We got a great spectrum of Coronation — lots of signal,” said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. “Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it’s payoff time!”

Coronation was not targeted because it was particularly interesting. Rather it was chosen more as target practice to familiarize controllers back on Earth with the procedures and characteristics of the laser.

“It’s surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio,” said ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France. “It’s so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years.”

This procedure’s official designation is a mouthful; it is called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy and has been used before in other extreme environments (nuclear reactors, on the ocean floor).

Curiosity safely landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 6 at 1:32 a.m. EDT. The rover is about the size of a Mini Cooper, is powered by plutonium and is slated to search for clues that life could have gotten a start on Mars. Curiosity was sent to Gale Crater due to the area’s layers of rock which hint that the region was once wet.

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