Curiosity Fires the First-Ever Laser for Interplanetary Exploration
August 21, 2012 • 10:16AM

NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab reported late Sunday that Mars rover Curiosity successfully fired its laser for the first time, to "interrogate" a small rock called "Coronation." The Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument fired 30 pulses during a 10-second interval, Los Alamos Principal Investigator Roger Wiens reported. Each pulse delivers more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second. The laser creates a glowing plasma, or ionized gas, of rock material, which light is recorded by a telescope, and then analyzed by three spectrometers, to identify the rock's elements. "Coronation" was chosen because it is within reach of the laser without moving Curiosity, has a smooth exterior, and is a typical common basalt rock, which is good as an initial target. It was the first time a laser was fired on another planet. France, which has extensive experience with lasers, built this one for Curiosity.

The suite of instruments aboard ChemCam recorded spectra from each of the laser pulses. Scientists will see if the spectra changes through the succession of laser hits. If so, the laser may have been able to penetrate surface dust or other surface material to reveal subsurface composition. The technique used in ChemCam, JPL reports, has been used in extreme environments, such as inside nuclear reactors and on the sea floor, to determine the composition of materials. This is its first use in interplanetary exploration.

NASA has posted photos of "Coronation" before and after the laser hit. Scientists will now analyze the spectrogaphic data and the images that ChemCam sends back.