Martian Laser Surpasses 100,000 Zaps

This artist’s concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. The ChemCam system uses a laser to take samples from as far as 23 feet away from the Curiosity rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The ChemCam laser instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover fired its 100,000th shot recently, chronicling its adventures on Mars with a coffee-table-book’s worth of spectral data that might rival snapshots gathered during a long and satisfying family vacation here on Earth. ChemCam zaps rocks with a high-powered laser to determine their composition and carries a camera that can survey the Martian landscape.

“ChemCam has greatly exceeded our expectations,” said Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist and principal investigator of the ChemCam team. “The information we’ve gleaned from the instrument will continue to enhance our understanding of the Red Planet, and will nicely complement information from the other nine instruments aboard Curiosity as we continue our odyssey to Mount Sharp.”

Curiosity landed on Mars at the edge of Gale Crater near the base of Mount Sharp on Aug. 6, 2012. The rover is a rolling laboratory about the size of a small SUV that will roam the Martian landscape for at least another year in search of clues about the planet’s habitability. Using a suite of 10 instruments that can perform diverse and amazing tasks ranging from digging up and baking soil samples, to shooting rocks with pinpoint accuracy with a high-powered laser, Curiosity already has helped show scientists that Mars apparently once had a very wet history and still retains enough moisture in its dust and rocks to quench the thirst of future astronauts.

Curiosity’s laser instrument, ChemCam, fires a short laser burst that packs the wallop of nearly one million light bulbs into a single pinpoint of light to vaporize rock and dust. A camera aboard the instrument reads the spectral signature of the resultant flash and translates the information into the composition of whatever happened to be in ChemCam’s crosshairs at the moment. The instrument also has a camera that scientists have been using to survey the Martian landscape. A slideshow of images can be found at http://www.msl-chemcam.com

Roger Wiens, left, of Los Alamos National Laboratory and principal investigator of the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s ChemCam team, checks out the ChemCam instrument at Los Alamos before the launch. Image Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

The ChemCam concept was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but the instrument aboard Curiosity is a partnership between Los Alamos and the French national space agency, Center National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and research agency, Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

The U.S. operations center for the ChemCam team is located in downtown Los Alamos. Wiens said a teleprompter showing the latest slideshows from Mars will soon be erected in downtown Los Alamos for public viewing.

“Like those family slideshows from summer vacations along Route 66, people will be able to enjoy and experience the highlights of our trip,” Wiens said. “ChemCam was designed to fire one million shots, so we’ll have lots of stories to tell later on.”


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