Target Practice on Mars

Robert Bigelow

One of the most anticipated steps in the instrument checkout on NASA’s Curiosity rover is the first use of Curiosity’s laser on a Martian rock, and this past weekend, Curiosity set its target on a 3-inch rock about 9 feet away from the rover. Originally designated N165, the rock has been given the name “Coronation.”

This mosaic image with a close-up inset, shows the rock chosen as the first target for NASA's Curiosity rover to zap with its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL

The main goal of the test was to check the pointing of the imager and operation of the laser. The laser fired 30 short bursts at the rock over 10 seconds. With each burst the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument recorded the spectrum of light given off as a pinhead size spot on “Coronation” is vaporized. A spectrometer on board the rover is used to determine the abundance of elements in the vaporized sample. Each successive laser burst went ever so slightly deeper into the rock.

This composite image, with magnified insets, depicts the first laser test by the ChemCam instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

Scientists are now analyzing the data to see whether elemental abundances changed with depth. Mission controllers will now begin to use ChemCam as part of the science mission. The first science targets will likely be in an area of bedrock (recently named Goulburn Scour) that was exposed by the descent rockets of the Lander.


Goulburn Scour Mark, Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


It takes a long time to position the rover and command its robotic arm to place a particular instrument in contact with a rock or soil sample. An analysis with the ChemCam and its laser can be done in much less time. ChemCam will be a great help in rapidly selecting the most scientifically important targets for study by the rover’s other instruments.

Let the targeting begin!

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