NASA's Mars rover zaps first rock with high power laser

NASA's Mars rover has zapped its first rock using a high-powered laser gun to help scientists analyse the minerals inside it.

Image taken before the test shows the rock chosen as the first target by NASA
Image taken before the test shows the rock chosen as the first target by NASA Credit: NASA/Reuters

The rover - called Curiosity - took aim with its laser beam and shot the rock with 30 pulses over a 10-second period.

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Today, the @marscuriosity rover laser instrument zaps its first Martian rock. http://t.co/huhqRYfF Team is analyzing data now. #MSL

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

The system, called 'ChemCam', is designed to take about 14,000 measurements throughout Curiosity's mission on Mars.

First laser test by the so-called 'ChemCam' instrument on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover
First laser test by the so-called 'ChemCam' instrument on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover Credit: NASA/Reuters

The aim of the initial use of the laser was as target practice for the instrument. However, scientists will examine the data to work out the composition of the rock, which they have dubbed "Coronation".

We got a great spectrum of Coronation - lots of signal.

After eight years of building the instrument, it's payoff time.

– Roger Wiens, ChemCam principal investigator

Curiosity is a one-ton, six-wheeled vehicle the size of a compact car. Its two-year mission is aimed at determining whether or not the planet most like Earth could have hosted 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.