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Mars rover Curiosity gets ready for its first road trip on Red Planet

August 21, 2012 |  5:03 am

It's shaping up to be another busy week for Mars rover Curiosity.

Times science writer Amina Khan discussed anticipation at NASA over Curiosity's upcoming first ride on the Mars surface. She also explained how the rover used its laser over the weekend on a nearby rock named Coronation, hitting the softball-size chunk with 30 pulses in 10 seconds.

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

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

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 layers of rock with each pulse.

Scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory  selected the 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.

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