Coronation, the fist-sized target rock before ChemCam bombarded it with laser beams

Sunday the Mars rover successfully completed a test of its camera, ChemCam, a key instrument in the search for the life-supporting habitat.

During a 10-second period, ChemCam zapped Coronation with 30 laser pulses of more than a million watts of power each.  Each pulse lasted about five one billionths of a second.

After the energy excites atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma, ChemCam catches the light emitted and analyzes it for information about what elements are in the target.

Coronation after bombardment

“We got a great spectrum of Coronation — lots of signal,” said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM. “Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it’s payoff time!”

Initially, the goal of the ChemCam experiment was to serve as target practice for characterizing the instrument, but there may be additional value to the exercise.

Researchers will check to see if and how Coronation’s composition changed as the pulses progressed.  The spectrometers record intensity at 8,144 different wavelengths of visible, ultraviolet and infrared light.

“It’s surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio,” said ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist,  Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France. “It’s so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years.”

Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, the technique ChemCam uses, has previously been employed to interrogate the composition of targets in other extreme environments, such as within nuclear reactors and on the sea floor.  It’s had experimental applications in environmental monitoring and cancer detection.

Sunday’s investigation of Coronation is the first use of the technique on a planet other than Earth.

ChemCam was developed, built and tested by the US Department of Energy at its Los Alamos National Laboratory in partnership with scientists and engineers funded by the French national space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and the French research agency, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

Sources:  NASA website, August 20, 2012     Discovery News, August 20, 2012       Photos credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP


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