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Mars rover shoots rock with laser, set to drive to Glenelg soon

August 19, 2012|By Amina Khan | Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Watkins discusses the deployment of the Curiosity rover's main mast on the surface of Mars during a news conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Mike Watkins discusses the deployment of the Curiosity rover's main… (Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles…)

The Mars rover known as Curiosity zapped its first target with its laser eye this weekend, NASA officials announced.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover has been stretching its limbs and testing its cameras since landing Aug. 5. Now, the rover has unleashed its laser on a nearby rock named Coronation, hitting the softball-size chunk with 30 pulses in a 10-second span.

With more than 1 million watts of power in each 5-billionths-of-a-second pulse, the laser shots from the  ChemCam instrument vaporize the rock into plasma. The device then uses its spectrometers to analyze the  elemental composition.

Like the initial photos taken by Curiosity’s cameras, the laser exercise was meant to test whether ChemCam was working properly. But it could provide some useful scientific insight. If the composition of the plasma seemed to change over those 30 pulses, then it could mean the laser was digging into successive thin layers of rock with each pulse.

Scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge have also picked their first drive-to spot – a place about 1,300 feet east-southeast called Glenelg, which is at the nexus of three different types of terrain. One of those types -- layered bedrock -- would be a tempting first target for Curiosity's drilling tool.

Before the engineers do that, however, they plan to test the rover’s wheels and send it on a test drive. Curiosity will roll several feet forward, and then turn 90 degrees and and back up so that it can check out its landing spot.

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