NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity fired its laser beam for the first time on Mars over the weekend, blasting a small rock called "Coronation" with 30 high-energy laser pulses, the space agency said on Sunday.
The laser is emitted from the Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, a tool that analyzes Martian rock and soil to determine the composition.
NASA described the rock, which was previously known as N165, as roughly the size of a fist.
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According to the agency, the ChemCam uses what's called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. It emits powerful laser pulses -- each one blasts over a million watts -- to energize atoms in the target rock, turning them "into an ionized, glowing plasma." A telescope captures the light from the plasma, and then three on-board spectrometers analyze it to determine the composition.
"We got a great spectrum of Coronation -- lots of signal," Roger Wiens, ChemCam Principal Investigator, said in a NASA statement. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!"
While laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy has been used on Earth to analyze materials on the sea floor and inside nuclear reactors, NASA said that this is the first time it's been used on another planet.
The ChemCam will eventually be used to determine material composition, but Sunday's zap was essentially target practice for the instrument.
Sylvestre Maurice, the ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist, said in the statement that the instrument has the potential to analyze "thousands of targets" over the next several years.
Scientists said last week that the rover will "exercise" its wheels and go on short test drives in the coming days.
Curiosity's mission will span two years and help scientists determine if portions of the red planet ever had conditions that could have been suitable for microbial life.
Click here to see a high-resolution self-portrait of the rover.
CORRECTION: A headline in a previous version of this article incorrectly identified Curiosity as Opportunity. Opportunity is a rover that NASA launched in 2003 and has been active on Mars since landing in 2004.
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. (NASA)
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. (NASA)
This mosaic image shows the first target NASA's Curiosity rover aims to zap with its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. ChemCam will be firing a laser at this rock, provisionally named N165, and analyzing the glowing, ionized gas, called plasma, that the laser excites. The instrument will analyze that spark with a telescope and identify the chemical elements in the target. The rock is just off to the right of the rover. This image is part of a set of images obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). See PIA16051 for the larger mosaic. (NASA)
This close-up image shows the first target NASA's Curiosity rover aims to zap with its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. ChemCam will be firing a laser at this rock, provisionally named N165, and analyzing the glowing, ionized gas, called plasma, that the laser excites. The instrument will analyze that spark with a telescope and identify the chemical elements in the target. The rock is just off to the right of the rover. This image is part of a set of images obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). See pia16051 for the larger mosaic.
This full-resolution self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation camera. The back of the rover can be seen at the top left of the image, and two of the rover's right side wheels can be seen on the left. The undulating rim of Gale Crater forms the lighter color strip in the background. Bits of gravel, about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) in size, are visible on the deck of the rover. This mosaic is made of 20 images, each of 1,024 by 1,024 pixels, taken late at night on Aug. 7 PDT (early morning Aug. 8 EDT). It uses an average of the Navcam positions to synthesize the point of view of a single camera, with a field of view of 120 degrees. Seams between the images have been minimized as much as possible. The wide field of view introduces some distortion at the edges of the mosaic. (NASA)
This image shows the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover and destinations scientists want to investigate. Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT) at the green dot, within the Yellowknife quadrangle. The team has chosen for it to move toward the region marked by a blue dot that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit it twice -- both coming and going -- and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. Then, the rover will aim to drive to the blue spot marked "Base of Mt. Sharp", which is a natural break in the dunes that will allow Curiosity to begin scaling the lower reaches of Mount Sharp. At the base of Mt. Sharp are layered buttes and mesas that scientists hope will reveal the area's geological history. These annotations have been made on top of an image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
his image shows a closer view of the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover and a destination nearby known as Glenelg. Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT) at the blue dot. It is planning on driving to an area marked with a red dot that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. Starting clockwise from the top of this image, scientists are interested in this brighter terrain because it may represent a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity. The next terrain shows the marks of many small craters and intrigues scientists because it might represent an older or harder surface. The third, which is the kind of terrain Curiosity landed in, is interesting because scientists can try to determine if the same kind of rock texture at Goulburn, an area where blasts from the descent stage rocket engines scoured away some of the surface, also occurs at Glenelg. The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit the area twice -- both coming and going -- and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. After Glenelg, the rover will aim to drive to the base of Mount Sharp. These annotations have been made on top of an image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA)
Scientists have now named the four marks near NASA's Curiosity rover where blasts from the descent stage rocket engines blew away some of the Martian surface material. Scientists have named the scour marks, clockwise from the most north: Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon. These names were chosen by the science team from a list of rock formations in northern Canada because they all have something to do with heat, for example "burn" or "dragon." This cropped image is part of a larger panorama from Curiosity's Mast Camera (see pia16051).
This cropped image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows one set of marks on the surface of Mars where blasts from the descent-stage rocket engines blew away some of the surface material. This particular scour mark is near the rear left wheel of the rover and is the left-most scour mark on the left side of this larger panorama from Curiosity's Mast Camera (see PIA16051). This scour mark is named Goulburn after a 2-billion year-old sequence of rocks in northern Canada.
This image (cut out from a mosaic) shows the view from the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover toward the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, where Curiosity is likely to begin its ascent through hundreds of feet (meters) of layered deposits. The lower several hundred feet (meters) show evidence of bearing hydrated minerals, based on orbiter observations. The terrain Curiosity will explore is marked by hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three story buildings, very much like the Four Corners region of the western United States. A scale bar indicates a distance of 1.2 miles (2 kilometers). Curiosity's 34-millimeter Mast Camera acquired this high-resolution image on Aug. 8, 2012 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). This image shows the colors modified as if the scene were transported to Earth and illuminated by terrestrial sunlight. This processing, called "white balancing," is useful to scientists for recognizing and distinguishing rocks by color in more familiar lighting. (NASA)
This image shows the calibration target for the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on NASA's Curiosity rover. The calibration target is one square and a group of nine circles that look dark in the black-and-white image. The calibration target set can be seen in the middle left in this image, to the right of the rover's power source. The materials used in these circles are the types of materials scientists anticipated they might encounter on Mars. The square is a titanium alloy with a painted edge. The ChemCam instrument will be firing a series of powerful, but invisible, laser pulses at a target rock or soil. It is located on the rover's mast, near the Navigation camera that took this image. A telescopic camera known as the remote micro-imager will show the context of the spots hit with the laser. This image was taken by the right-side Navigation camera on Aug. 16, 2012. (NASA)
This view of the head of the remote sensing mast on the Mars Science Laboratory mission's rover, Curiosity, shows seven of the 17 cameras on the rover. Two pairs of Navigation cameras (Navcams), among the rover's 12 engineering cameras, are the small circular apertures on either side of the head. On the top are the optics of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) investigation, which includes a laser and a telescopic camera. The Mast Camera (MastCam) instrument includes a 100-millimeter-focal-length camera called MastCam-100 or M-100, and a 34-millimeter-focal-length camera called the MastCam-34 or M-34. The two cameras of the MastCam are both scientific and natural color imaging systems. The M-100 looks through a 1.2-inch (3-centimeter) baffle aperture, and the M-34 looks through a 2.1-inch (5.3-centimete) baffle aperture. (NASA)