Mars Rover Curiosity's Rock-Blasting Laser Reaches Milestone
The laser has been fired 100,000 times so far, helping scientists uncover more amazing details about the Martian surface.Since landing on Mars Aug. 6, 2012, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has been exploring the planet's surface and conducting science experiments on soil and rocks. One of the mission's key milestones was reached this week when the rover's specialized on-board laser was fired for the 100,000th time as it continues to explore the planet's history. The laser, called ChemCam, is shot each time at a rock, creating a little ball of plasma or debris, Roger Wiens, the principal investigator of the ChemCam team, told eWEEK. "It abrades some material off of the rock's surface, like a little ball of flame," said Wiens, who is a planetary scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the laser was developed. After each shot, special instruments on the rover capture the spectral signatures of the laser firing, which are used to identify the elements that make up the soil on Mars, he said. Photographs are also taken to document the laser firing and to build a history of the experiments. The ChemCam laser marks the first time that scientists on Earth have been able to do this kind of research on Mars, said Wiens. A previous Phoenix lander sent to Mars had a laser, but it was aimed into the planet's atmosphere and couldn't collect information about the rocks on Mars.
Other Mars lander missions used a robotic arm to scoop up soil for analysis, but that limited data collection to materials that could be grabbed by the arm, said Wiens. "So it took more effort than just point and shoot," like researchers are able to do with the laser. "This mission provides much more data collection."