Mars rover set to zap rock, analyze chemicals

Story highlights

  • Rover's ChemCam was to zap small Martian rock on Saturday night
  • It will analyze ionized gas to identify chemical elements
  • Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on August 6; scientists have been checking its systems

Martian rock N165, it's your time to shine, or glow, or whatever occurs when a hard substance gets zapped by a laser beam.

From about 10 feet away, the Mars rover Curiosity's ChemCam was to take aim Saturday night at the hapless three-inch rock.

"We are going to hit it with 14 millijoules of energy 30 times in 10 seconds," Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory told reporters.

A millijoule is 1/1000th of a joule, which is way too complicated to explain here. Suffice to say, it should get the job done.

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ChemCam, short for Chemistry and Camera, will analyze the resulting glowing, ionized gas in an effort to identify chemical elements in the rock.

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Scientists say it will be the first time such a powerful laser has been used on another planet. The laser works in conjunction with a telescope.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Friday that Curiosity's first driving destination will be Glenelg, about 1,300 feet from the rover's landing site.

"We had a bunch of strong contenders. It is the kind of dilemma planetary scientists dream of, but you can only go one place for the first drilling for a rock sample on Mars," said project scientist John Grotzinger. "That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration."

The mobile science lab touched down on Mars early on August 6 and has been beaming back images of the surface of Gale Crater ever since.

The rover's primary target is Mount Sharp, a peak about 8 kilometers (5 miles) away. But moving about a football field a day, with lengthy stops, it could take nearly a year to reach the slopes at the base of the mountain.

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