Using a rapid-fire laser and telescope instrument called ChemCam, Mars rover Curiosity zaps its 'Coronation' rock, creating sparks of ionized gas that will be used to measure the rock's chemical contents.
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has zapped its first rock in what scientists elatedly declare a successful test of ChemCam, a laser-and-telescope combo designed to uncover the chemical composition of rocks on the Red Planet.
The instrument is set to play a key role in helping scientists fill in Curiosity's rock-hunting agenda over the next two years.
"After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!" said Roger Wiens, a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., and the instrument's lead scientist, in a statement.
The rover's broad mission is to search for clues that might show whether Gale Crater and its three-mile-high summit, Mt. Sharp, hosted an environment hospitable for life some 3 billion to 4 billion years ago. Those clues, if they exist, hide in the chemical make-up of the rocks and soils at Curiosity's new home – especially rocks in the layered foothills of Mt. Sharp, the rover's ultimate destination.
ChemCam's ability to sample rocks from a distance of up to 23 feet will help researchers decide which rocks they want Curiosity to drive up to and analyze in more detail.
For Sunday's test, researchers aimed ChemCam at a rock roughly 3 inches across and located about 9 feet from the rover. The team initially tagged the rock with the prosaic label N165. But researchers finally settled on a name for it: Coronation.
Curiosity tickled Coronation with 30 laser pulses during a 10-second test – each pulse lasting for about 5 billionths of a second and depositing more than a megawatt of power on a spot the size of a pinhead.
From ChemCam's vantage point some 7 feet above the surface atop Curiosity's mast, the rapid-fire pulses generated what looked like a series of sparks at the rock. Each spark, in fact, was a tiny burst of hot, ionized gas known as a plasma. The telescope associated with the laser captured that light, sending it through fiber-optic lines to spectrometers inside Curiosity's body. The spectrometers hunted for the fingerprints of chemical elements encoded in the plasma's light.