NASA rover, Curiosity, blasts first Martian rock with laser

With successful laser blast, rover's next big test will be driving

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity successfully tested its laser on Sunday, blasting a fist-size Martian rock and analyzing its makeup.

The rover's Chemistry and Camera instrument, dubbed the ChemCam, zapped the rock with 30 pulses during a 10-second span, according to the space agency. With each pulse carrying more than a million watts of power in a five one-billionth-of-a-second burst, the laser turned the rock, which scientists named Coronation, into an ionized, glowing plasma.

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. (Image: NASA / Jet Propulsion Lab)

At that point, the ChemCam, which sits on the rover's mast, caught the light from the plasma with a telescope and analyzed the specimen with three spectrometers to discover what the rocks are made of, NASA said.

The ChemCam recorded spectrum after each of the 30 laser pulses.

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

NASA scientists on Friday said the rock wasn't chosen for any specific scientific value and was intended for target practice with the new laser.

However, on Sunday, NASA reported that there might be more scientific value to the first laser blast than they had anticipated.

Scientists are checking the analysis to see if the rock's composition changed as the number of pulses increased. If there is a change, it could show a different composition below the surface of the rock.

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

Sunday's laser blast is one of two big tests that Curiosity is set to undergo.

On Friday, NASA announced that the robotic rover also is about to start moving.

While Curiosity won't be going on a long journey on its first movement test, but will be driving forward and backward in the landing area to test its wheels and driving mechanisms. This movement test is expected to come within the next few days.

Once Curiosity's ability to drive is successfully tested, scientists will turn their attention to plotting the rover's first real trek, to an area NASA dubbed Glenelg, which marks the intersection of three different kinds of terrain.

It is expected to take the rover three to four weeks to reach Glenelg, unless it encounters rocks or soil that scientists want it to stop and analyze. Once Curiosity reaches its first destination, the rover will spend about two months analyzing that area.

Toward the end of the year, NASA engineers expect to begin to move Curiosity toward Mount Sharp, a three-mile high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater, where the rover landed. Mount Sharp is a primary area of interest for the scientists who are hoping to discover if Mars has ever been able to support microbial life.

Curiosity, NASA's most advanced robotic rover, has been on the surface of Mars for two weeks.

The car-sized, nuclear-powered machine is on what NASA hopes will be at least a two-year mission. It is equipped with 10 scientific instruments and offers the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on the surface of Mars, including chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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