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Mars rover Curiosity vaporizes rock with laser

August 20, 2012 |  6:58 am

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity unleashed its laser this past weekend 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 vaporized the rock into plasma. The device then used 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 layers of rock with each pulse.

PHOTOS: Mars rover mission

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.

Los Angeles Times science writer Monte Morin discussed how the rover will roam around the Red Planet during a Google+ Hangout on Thursday.

Morin reported that this is a stressful time for the drivers:

They must sacrifice some of their Earthly existence and live on Mars time, an ever-changing schedule that is tougher than any graveyard shift. For months, operators will be essentially sequestered from family and friends to focus on Mars. While the mission is scheduled to run 23 months, it could last much longer.

The stress can be overwhelming. Separated from the rover by millions of miles, they know they can make no mistakes. A single slip-up can turn the ambitious scientific mission into a $2.5-billion Martian paperweight. It will feel at times like the entire world is a back-seat driver.

 

In the coming days, engineers at JPL will test the rover's steering actuators. Then Curiosity is to take its first few "steps" — driving perhaps a few feet before turning around and surveying the spot where it landed.

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— Amina Khan and Monte Morin

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