Mars Rover Curiosity's Rock-Blasting Laser Reaches Milestone

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-12-08 Print this article Print
Mars Rover

The ChemCam laser is operated half of the time by scientists at Los Alamos and half the time by scientists at the French national space agency, Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and at the French research agency, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

What's been most surprising so far, said Wiens, is that on the laser's very first firing on Aug. 19, 2012, it found evidence of hydration, or water, in the dust on Mars. "It's still a mystery to us how this is present." The water is in small quantities, however, making up only 1.5 to 3 percent of the content of the soil samples collected.

That discovery, though, creates some interesting implications for future space travelers to Mars, he said. "If you would have astronauts there, they could potentially collect large amounts of soil, heat it up and get water," said Wiens.

Asked if the scheduled 30-month mission is so far going like he expected, Wiens said it's even more special than he dreamed. "It's one thing to be planning for it, and then it's another thing to have all the data and to have all the secrets that Mars has been revealing from all these spectral images that we have been collecting."

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which designed and built the project's Curiosity rover, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. Since landing, Curiosity has so far sent more than 190 gigabits of data back to Earth, and has sent back more than 36,700 full images and 35,000 thumbnail images, according to NASA.

In July, the Curiosity rover began a long-awaited, 5-mile journey across the terrain of the red planet to begin exploring a rocky area known as Mount Sharp 11 months after the rover arrived on the planet's surface following a 354-million-mile, eight-month voyage from Earth.

The Mount Sharp destination, which is in the middle of Gale Crater, is important to scientists working on the mission because it exposes many layers where scientists anticipate finding evidence about how the ancient Martian environment changed and evolved, according to the JPL. The rover is expected to take up to a year to reach Mount Sharp, due to the care that must be used in crossing the unknown terrain.

At the end of June, it conducted a close-up investigation of a target sedimentary outcrop of rock called Shaler, according to NASA, then began heading away from Shaler on July 4. The vehicle travels very slowly, initially traveling 59 feet away from Shaler that day, then adding another 131-foot excursion away from the site on July 7.

In June, NASA released a spectacular 1.3 billion-pixel image of the surface of Mars, which was stitched together from almost 900 images taken by special cameras mounted on the Curiosity rover. The image can be explored using panning and scanning tools on NASA's Website. The images used to create the massive photograph include some 850 frames taken using the telephoto camera of Curiosity's Mast Camera instrument, supplemented with 21 frames from the Mastcam's wider-angle camera and 25 black-and-white frames from the on-board Navigation Camera, according to NASA.


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