Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Curiosity zaps first Martian target

Zap! Curiosity, NASA's Mars rover has zapped its first rock, using a high-powered laser designed to analyze Martian mineral content. The Sunday target practice, scientists said, was a success.

The fist-sized rock, dubbed Martian rock N165 - but nicknamed "Coronation" - was zapped 30 times over 10 seconds with 14 millijoules of energy in each pulse, NASA said in a statement. "Each pulse delivers more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second," the space agency said.

High-powered though it is, the laser isn't something out of Star Trek. It only vaporizes a pinhead-sized piece of the rock. The spectrum of the glow is then analyzed for chemical composition by a small telescope mounted on Curiosity, known as the Chemistry and Camera instrument or ChemCam. It uses three spectrometers to do so.

This particular rock-zapping, though, was really target practice. Still, scientists will examine the data received from the instrument, as they said Coronation provided a "great spectrum" to analyze.

Sunday's experiment was conducted at approximately 3 a.m. PT. Principal investigator Roger Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where ChemCam was developed, said, "We got a great spectrum of Coronation - lots of signal. After eight years of building the instrument, it's payoff time."

On Friday, NASA announced the rover's first destination will be Glenelg, which is about 1,300 feet or a quarter of a mile away. Its ultimate destination, though, is Mt. Sharp, is about five miles away.

Curiosity landed on Mars on Aug. 6. Its two-year mission is to study a carefully chosen area inside Gale Crater in order to perhaps answer the age-old question: if Mars has ever had environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

No comments: