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Mars Rover Test Fires Rock-Zapping Laser

NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity zapped its first rock with a laser beam on Sunday.

NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity zapped its first rock with a laser beam on Sunday, successfully completing a test of a key instrument needed to search for life-friendly habitats.

The rover's Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, blasted a flat, fist-sized rock with a high-powered laser 30 times in 10 seconds, creating plasma sparks that were analyzed by three light-splitting spectrometers to determine their chemical contents.

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"Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results," Los Alamos National Laboratory's Roger Wiens, ChemCam lead scientist, said in a statement.

The rock, dubbed "Coronation," primarily served as target practice, though scientists are interested in whether and how its composition changed between laser pulses, each of which lasted about five one-billionths of a second.

Changes could mean dust or other surface materials were blasted away, leaving a different composition exposed.

ChemCam deputy project scientist Sylvestre Maurice, with the Research Institute for Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, France, said the instrument worked even better than expected.

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The technique used by ChemCam has been used to assess other extreme environments, such as inside nuclear reactors and on the sea floor. Curiosity's instrument is the first to be included on an interplanetary probe.

Curiosity touched down inside an ancient Martian impact basin on Aug. 6 for a two-year mission to determine if the landing site, called Gale Crater, has or ever had environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

Images: Top: Curiosity's first laser target practice was a fist-sized rock known as Coronation; Middle: Composite image, with magnified insets, illustrating the first laser test by ChemCam. The pictures includes a Navigation Camera image taken prior to the test, with insets taken by ChemCam's camera. 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 hit the rock. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP