Curiosity fires laser at rock on Mars

Aug. 20, 2012 at 7:29 AM
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PASADENA, Calif., Aug. 20 (UPI) -- The U.S. Mars rover Curiosity fired its laser for the first time on Mars to investigate a fist-size rock dubbed "Coronation," NASA officials said Monday.

The mission's chemistry and camera instrument, ChemCam, hit the fist-sized rock with 30 laser pulses during a 10-second period, NASA said in a release.

Each pulse sends more than a million watts of power, exciting atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma, NASA said. ChemCam then traps the light with a telescope and analyzes it for information about elements in the target.

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation -- lots of signal," said Roger Wiens, ChemCam principal investigator of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

NASA officials said the goal was to act as "target practice" for characterizing the laser instrument, as well as provide additional value. Researchers will check whether the composition changed as the pulses progressed. A change could indicate dust or other surface material being penetrated to reveal different composition.

The spectrometers record intensity at 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, NASA said.

Curiosity landed on Mars two weeks ago to begin a two-year mission to assess whether a study area inside Gale Crater ever had environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

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