Monday, 20 August 2012 08:54
August 20, 2012
And now the invasion of Mars has truly gotten underway.
On Sunday, August 19 - at least on Earth - the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's new Martian rover struck the first blow, testing out its powerful on-board laser on a nearby rock.
Obviously, there is not much need to conquer anything on Mars. But the test is a critical step in getting the probe, the Curiosity, on its way to some of the proposed test sites.
Rock meets laser
Curiosity is equipped with a wide array of scientific instruments designed to allow it to test the soil around Gale Crater for signs of water and, potentially, the one-time presence of life. The rover's ability to manipulate these objects directly, however, is somewhat limited.
To address this problem, NASA equipped Curiosity with a laser attached to a device called the Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam. This laser fires for only around five one-billionths of a second at a time, but it packs a major punch in each shot, delivering more than 1 million watts of power.
When this laser hits a rock, it heats it to such a high temperature so quickly that it transforms into a form of plasma, that gives off light based on the composition of the rock. The ChemCam is designed to detect and record a huge range of wavelengths from ultraviolet to infrared - 6,144 distinct wavelengths all told.
This process is aptly named laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, and is used regularly on Earth in order to assess certain materials in situations that make more direct approaches more difficult, such as in nuclear reactors and deep underwater. Some engineering research has even considered the technique for potential environmental and medical applications, such as detecting cancer.
Small-scale with large implications
As impressive as 1 million-watt lasers are, though, people should not be worried about Curiosity wandering around Mars leaving a path of destruction in its wake. The fist-sized rock chosen to test the laser, dubbed rather grandly "Coronation," was left afterward with a small hole drilled into its surface, just noticeable on an eight-millimeter inset on a picture from the rover's high-definition cameras.
The tightly-focused laser allows researchers to inspect deep within rocks without need to waste the energy most science fiction guns use to blast rocks into dust.
What's particularly interesting about the results from this small-scale test, however, is how effective it actually turned out to be.
"It's surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio," Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam deputy project scientist from the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, said in a statement. "It's so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years."
CNET reports that, despite the fact that the rover has yet to move from where it landed, the ChemCam test could turn out to provide some interesting insights into Martian geography. Researchers should be able to look at the difference between the surface dust and the interior of the Coronation rock.
Ready to get started
Space.com reports that with a software update and several critical tests completed, Curiosity could be ready to take its first drive around the surface later this week. It will not be a particularly long drive, mostly just making sure there are no problems with the wheels or the drive systems, but at the end of the week the rover could be four meters farther along its path and turned 90 degrees to the right. Maybe not the most exciting step, but an important one on the impressive probe's upcoming journey.
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