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Published: Monday, 8/20/2012

Curiosity zaps its 1st Mars rock

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Curiosity rover zapped its first Martian rock Sunday, aiming its laser for the sake of science.

Scientists declared the target practice a success.

Curiosity pointed the beam at the fist-sized stone nearby and shot the rock with 30 pulses over a 10-second period, NASA said.

Each pulse delivers more than 1 million watts of energy for about five one-billionths of a second, vaporizing a pinhead-sized bit of the rock to create a tiny spark for analysis by a small telescope mounted on the instrument.

The ionized glow, which can be observed and recorded from up to 25 feet away, is then split into its component wavelengths by three spectrometers that give scientists information about the chemical makeup of the rock.

The combined system, called the Chemistry-and-Camera instrument, or ChemCam, is capable of discerning more than 6,000 wavelengths in the ultraviolet, infrared, and visible light spectrum and is designed to take about 14,000 measurements throughout Curiosity's Mars mission.

The purpose of the initial use of the laser was target practice for the instrument. But scientists will examine the data they receive to determine the composition of the rock, which they dubbed "Coronation," NASA said.

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation -- lots of signal," said ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the instrument was developed. "After eight years of building the instrument, it's payoff time."

Curiosity, a one-ton, six-wheeled vehicle the size of a compact car, landed inside an ancient impact crater near Mars' equator on Aug. 6 after an eight-month, 354-million-mile voyage through space.

Its two-year mission is aimed at determining whether the planet most like Earth could have been host to microbial life.

The rover's primary target is Mount Sharp, a towering mound of layered rock rising from the floor of Gale Crater.

But mission controllers are gradually checking out Curiosity's sophisticated array of instruments before sending it on its first road trip across the Martian landscape.

The $2.5 billion Curiosity project marks NASA's first astrobiology mission since the Viking probes to Mars during the 1970s and the most advanced robotic science lab sent to another world.

The technique employed by ChemCam has been used to examine the composition of materials in other extreme environments, such as inside nuclear reactors and on the sea floor.

The technology also has experimental applications in environmental monitoring and cancer detection.

But Sunday's exercise, conducted during Curiosity's 13th full day on Mars, was the first use in interplanetary exploration, NASA said.

In several days, flight controllers will command Curiosity to move its wheels side-to-side and take its first short drive.

The test drive will be conducted before Curiosity embarks on its 4.3-mile trek to the foot of Mount Sharp, a journey that could take six months.



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