Today, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity fired its laser for the first time on Mars, using the beam from a science instrument to interrogate a fist-size rock called "Coronation."
The mission's Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, hit the fist-sized rock with 30 pulses of its laser during a 10-second period. Each pulse delivers more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second.
The energy from the laser excites atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma. ChemCam catches the light from that spark with a telescope and analyzes it with three spectrometers for information about what elements are in the target.
"We got a great spectrum of Coronation -- lots of signal," said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!"
ChemCam recorded spectra from the laser-induced spark at each of the 30 pulses. The goal of this initial use of the laser on Mars was to serve as target practice for characterizing the instrument, but the activity may provide additional value. Researchers will check whether the composition changed as the pulses progressed. If it did change, that could indicate dust or other surface material being penetrated to reveal different composition beneath the surface. The spectrometers record intensity at 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light.
"It's surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio," said ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France. "It's so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years."
The technique used by ChemCam, called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, has been used to determine composition of targets in other extreme environments, such as inside nuclear reactors and on the sea floor, and has had experimental applications in environmental monitoring and cancer detection. Today's investigation of Coronation is the first use of the technique in interplanetary exploration.
Curiosity landed on Mars two weeks ago, beginning a two-year mission using 10 instruments to assess whether a carefully chosen study area inside Gale Crater has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.
ChemCam was developed, built and tested by the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in partnership with scientists and engineers funded by the French national space agency, Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and research agency, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project, including Curiosity, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the rover.
What if they run into some chemical elements not known to humans?
Wow! I thought only the military could totally annihilate something with a laser and call it an interrogation.
I wondered about the phraseology myself.
That would be en exciting find, CI.
LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE, Calif. — NASA’s Mars rover has taken another small step for robot-kind.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California say the rover Curiosity flexed its robotic arm Monday for the first time since before its November launch.
They say they’ll now spend weeks testing and calibrating the 7-foot-long arm and its extensive tool kit — which includes a drill, a scoop, a spectrometer and a camera, in preparation for collecting its first soil samples and attempting to learn whether the Martian environment was favorable for microbial life
On Monday engineers unfurled the arm, extended it forward using all five of its joints, then stowed it again.
Next Mars Lander Will Drill into the Red Planet
While NASA's new Mars rover crawls around the surface of the Red Planet, looking for places that could have supported life, a new lander will attempt to discern what lies deep beneath the planet's crust.
By Chloe Albanesius
With Curiosity still getting the lay of the land (and zapping rocks) on Mars, NASA this week announced that the next mission to the Red Planet will blast off in 2016 via InSight.
PASADENA, Calif. — Curiosity took its first test drive around the gravel-strewn Martian terrain Wednesday, preparation for the ultimate road trip to find out if the red planet’s environment could have supported life.
The six-wheel NASA rover did not stray far from the spot where it landed more than two weeks ago. It rolled forward about 15 feet, rotated to a right angle and reversed a short distance, leaving tracks on the ancient soil.
Mission managers were ecstatic that the maiden voyage of the $2.5 billion mission was glitch-free.
Scientists tested the system on Earth in a chamber that simulated the Martian atmosphere. Some of the initial spectral data from Mars look similar to some of the terrestrial standards at first glance. In the coming weeks, ChemCam researchers will pore over the data to look for tiny variations among the peaks and valleys within spectral data captured on Earth and on Mars. These comparisons will allow the team to fine tune and calibrate the instrument, ensuring that every spectral signature gathered by the rover is accurate.
Each element on the Periodic Table has a unique spectral signature. ChemCam scientists will be able to use these spectral fingerprints to decipher the composition of Martian geology, including information about whether Mars rocks ever existed in a watery environment or underwent changes due to interactions with biological organisms.
With regard to Coronation rock (the rock formerly known as N-165), ChemCam's inaugural target, "at first glance it appears consistent with a basaltic composition," Wiens said.
"What's more interesting, however, is whether the rock had dust on it or some other kind of surface coating," he said. "ChemCam saw peaks of hydrogen and magnesium during the first shots that we didn't see in subsequent firings. This could mean the rock surface was coated with dust or some other material."
With Coronation's analyses complete, the science team had a chance to pick new targets. "After Coronation, we got to shoot at a group of ugly-looking rocks in the area named 'Goulburn,'" Wiens said. "That is one of the areas near the rover that was blasted by the thrusters of the landing vehicle, but these rocks were much farther away from the rover than Coronation, providing a bit more of a test for the ChemCam's laser."
The ChemCam system is one of 10 instruments mounted on the MSL mission's Curiosity rover -- a six-wheeled mobile laboratory that will roam more than 12 miles of the planet's surface during the course of one Martian year (98 Earth weeks). The system is designed to capture as many as 14,000 observations throughout the mission.
"We are just jubilant," Wiens said. "This mission is absolutely amazing. Everything is working so well. The same applies to our instrument."
ChemCam's laser, telescope, and camera were provided by the French space agency, CNES, while the spectrometers, electronics, and software were built at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which leads the investigation. The spectrometers were developed with the aid of Ocean Optics, Incorporated, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory assisted with various aspects of development.
The Curiosity science team plans next to take the rover out for a short spin to test out other systems. As the mission progresses, researchers will study the Martian environment in the vicinity of Mount Sharp, a towering peak with a summit nearly three miles above the rover. Mount Sharp appears to contain layers of sedimentary history dating back several billion years. These layers are like pages of a book that could teach researchers much about the geological history of the planet, including whether the Martian environment ever was, or ever may be, suitable for life as we know it.
Why NASA Intentionally Put Large Holes In Curiosity's Wheels Business Insider
NASA's Mars Curiosity rover may be loaded with a bunch of highly-sophisticated instruments to help it scoop, drill, and snap awesome photographs, but it doesn't come with a built-in GPS. The only way to track Curiosity's whereabouts and how far it has traveled is by following the car-sized Martian explorer's wheel marks. For this reason, engineers put holes in Curiosity's treads so that every time the wheels turn, they leave a unique imprint on Mars. Orbiters photograph the print and scientists can determine how far the rover has moved.
Solving the mystery of life on Mars requires robots to collect Martian samples for a return to Earth — a mission that may come with the astronomical price tag of $5 billion to $10 billion. That round trip to the Red Planet could become cheaper by using electric propulsion. The Mars sample return (MSR) mission would require powerful electric thrusters and efficient solar panels which are presently under development worldwide or even already existing. Such technology would allow the Mars mission to lighten the load of chemical propellant carried by traditional rockets and spacecraft — and it's within reach for a mission to try recovering Martian rocks and soil in the next decade or two.
How does an "electric thruster" work? What does it "thrust"?
It's a thruster, man. It thrusts. Pow. Zoom. To Mars, ros. Ity's all in the Kix cereal box with the toy.
It's a thruster, man. It thrusts. Pow. Zoom. To Mars, ros. Ity's all in the Kix cereal box with the toy.
I was afraid you would say that.
I did a quick google on this and what they mean by "electric propulsion" is actually Ion Propulsion.
Ion Propulsion is very good at producing a long slow acceleration, but it falls short by several orders of magnitude on short-hard acceleration. Therefor, it's good for moving things through space, but useless for boosting things into orbit.
Like a tractor beam in reverse, then.
Robots to Go Spelunking in Martian Caves? Discovery News
Scientists are beginning to sketch out plans for NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity to climb Mount Sharp, but future robots may have a more direct way to access the planet's history books. Recent discoveries of "skylights" (pictured here) and lava tubes on the surface of Mars, as well as the moon, are sparking the development of robotic probes that can descend into caves and explore tunnels. "Geology works in layers, so how many layers can you see? Well, we know there are sinkholes on Mars. Those sinkholes expose potentially hundreds of feet of layers, so if you could lower something down and examine those layers and explore a tunnel underneath, or anything of that sort, the science that can be done with that is just phenomenal," Jason Derleth, senior technology analyst with NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, told Discovery News.
NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover is on the move toward a key point of interest -- a spot about a quarter-mile southeast of its landing site that may become the rover’s first drill target.
That spot, called Glenelg Intrigue, lies at the confluence of three different types of terrain -- and scientists working on the Mars Science Laboratory mission plan to use Curiosity to investigate what sort of geological history brings such different types of rocky material together.
One of the three types, which looks to be layered bedrock, is likely to be a potential target for the rover's drill, a tool that can bore into rock in order to take samples and analyze them in the robot's chemical belly.
The rover set out Tuesday, covering 52 feet eastward. The trip to Glenelg would be the rover’s first extended driving journey: previous rover drives lasted a matter of several feet.