Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover

By Phil Plait | August 19, 2012 3:18 pm

The Mars Curiosity rover unleashed its laser beam eye today, zapping a nearby rock dubbed "Coronation".

[The "Before" picture of the hapless rock. I await the "After" eagerly. Click to endeathstarenate, or grab a 10,000 x 2400 pixel image.]

[UPDATE: Here’s the "After" picture!

The background image is from the Curiosity NAVCAM and shows the region around Greedo Coronation (you can see the rover’s shadow on the left). The zoomed region in the circle shows the area of the rock targeted by the laser just before the laser hit it (you can see the edge of the rock on the right side of the zoom). The final zoom at the top shows the pit zapped into the rock by the laser pulse.]

This isn’t mad science! It’s cool science.

OK, well, hot science.

Here’s the deal: when atoms and molecules absorb energy, they can re-emit that energy as light. The nifty part is, each type of substance emits a different color of light, making it possible to identify them. This is called spectroscopy, and we use it in astronomy all the time. Many objects like gas clouds and stars emit light naturally. We just have to observe them and pick out the signatures of the different chemicals in them.

For a Martian rock, though, we need to dump some energy into it to excite those substances. And that’s why Curiosity has a laser on board. It can zap a rock with a short, intense pulse of laser light, and the rock will respond by glowing. A spectrometer – a camera that can separate light into individual colors – then observes the glow, and scientists back home can see what the rock’s made of. It’s like DNA-typing or fingerprinting the rock, but from 150 million kilometers away.

Reports are the laser worked perfectly, blasting away at the rock with 30 one-megaWatt pulses (lasting 5 nanoseconds each!) in a span of about 10 seconds. Scientists are poring over the results now, and hopefully we’ll hear more about this soon.

I just wish they had named the rock Alderaan.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS; NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP


Related Posts:

Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars
Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield
Curiosity landing site: the whole mess

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space

Comments (68)

  1. Jason

    Remember, Curiosity shot first!

  2. Is it just me or do none of those rocks look like they have truly sharp edges to them? They all look worn and weathered to me, which is pretty awesome.

  3. DG

    I’m sure there is someone at NASA is now wishing they had thought of that. Of course there might have been a risk of intellectual property infringement but it is part of geek lexicon…LOL

  4. Simon Bradshaw

    Finally the Martians shall tremble before the might of the Earthling Heat Ray… Horsell Common shall be avenged!

    (Yes, I grew up only a couple of miles from where Wells had his Martians toast the curious citizens of Woking. It’s about time we retaliated.)

  5. A. Tari

    I couldn’t help but think of this from Star Trek: http://img820.imageshack.us/img820/2984/startreky.jpg

  6. Paulino

    The tripod emerges from Martian soil and says, “Sooo, you like firing beam weapons at other people’s planet, eh?”

  7. MacRat

    Check it out from the rock’s point of view.

    https://twitter.com/N165Mars

  8. Ken

    Unlike Alderaan, this rock wasn’t entirely vaporized. But I hear it’s not happy. https://twitter.com/N165Mars

  9. Daniel

    @Gord McLeod – A few billion years of Martian sandstorms have likely sandblasted all the sharp edges off.

  10. Ozonator aka Robert Rhodes

    And the self described “civil rights” organization – NRA – failed to support this mission because:
    their yobs caused enough wildfires in Utah,
    their dittoheads have enough trouble burning crosses with directions on the carbon heels of their boots,
    their t-buggers think a laser pointer is a tax on the Sun, or
    their Evil Inhofe types need all the gunpowder out there to blow their noses for this upcoming flu season.

  11. Other Paul

    Ooh look – flash-fried bacteria.

    Oh, wait – they weren’t the last were they? …

  12. Valdis Kletnieks

    @gord: Well, if we found a rock with truly sharp unweathered edges out there in the middle of the Martian landscape, that *would* be a story. How would such a thing get there? (There’s not much atmosphere, but enough to support dust storms – which implies that everything gets sandblasted over the millenia).

  13. Scott

    It is wonderful to see this mission go as it has. I do hope NASA Keeps in mind when Man is going to mars all equipment should be as simple as possible all parts and equipment should be able to transferred to another piece of equipment that is more critical for just in case, there is no hardware store out there just yet, maybe they should even look at sending advance supply’s instead of sending everything all at once such as water, food, fuel,spare parts that might be needed.

  14. @Gord LcLeod #2, the edges are sand blasted by the dust blown by the winds.
    There isn’t a lot of atmosphere present, but it’s enough to kick up global dust storms.
    Dust can be incredibly abrasive, as anyone who has been in the desert during a sandstorm can attest to.

    @Ozonator aka Robert Rhodes, that is highly uncalled for. This is not a political discussion site, the post had nothing whatsoever to do with firearms advocacy groups or anything other than the wonders being performed right now by NASA’s teams that designed and are operating the Curiosity rover.
    Kindly behave with civility and respect for the rest of the viewers of this blog.

  15. Larry M

    As long as we don’t see the words “No kill I” etched into any rocks.

  16. Equiliari

    -“Hmm, we need an image enhancer, do we have anything that can bitmap?”
    -“Vectoring in on the rock”
    -“Good, now enhance that rock surface”
    -“Enhancing the Z axis”
    -“Now fire the ‘laser'”
    -“Firing the ‘laser'”
    -“Now see if you can make a GUI in visual basic to track the molecular steam emitted from the blast zone”.
    -“Done!”
    -“Well what do you know… It looks like Curiosity… just killed some martian life…
    YEAAAAAAAAA…what?

  17. @Larry M, ROFLMAO!
    “I’m a DOCTOR, not a stone mason!”

  18. JB of Brisbane

    “Arm the (makes inverted commas with fingers) LAY-ZRRRR!”

    Let’s just be careful now – as I recall, it was a hasty laser shot that got us into all that trouble with the Mysterons.

  19. In my RSS Reader, the strikeout didn’t carry through so I read it as “the region around Greedo Coronation.”

    When I found the truth, I was actually sad.

  20. George Martin

    You can hear the teleconference where they said that “N165″ would be the first laser blast test for the “CHEMLAB instrument here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/24773693

    They said that “N165″ might be renamed later, but I guess it might not have happened yet. Also of interest about the CHEMLAB package that I heard is that the camera associated with hit can resolve a human hair seven feet away.

    Also in the teleconference it was announced what they currently think will be the first location they will driving Curiosity to. It is a place they are calling Gelnelg. It’s where three different “geological” formations appear to meet. In case no one noticed, they are aware that the name is a palindrome. They chose it, because of their naming convention and because they can sample going and coming. They will have to backtrack to get to the base of Mount Sharp.

    George

  21. Jim Craig

    In a few years, George Lucas will edit this to show that the rock fired first.

  22. Keith Hearn

    I really wish the Planetary Society had managed to get a microphone on Curiosity. I’d love to hear the pew-pew-pew!

  23. B

    “I just wish they had named the rock Alderaan.”

    If the Star Wars Imperial March song wasn’t playing at some point, then JPL’s nerd credentials are suspect. You can’t fire a laser on another planet and not cackle maniacally.

  24. Infinite123Lifer

    Will somebody alert MAHLI to gently nudge Coronation over so that we may have a looksie underneath . . . just in case . . . I am jus’ sayin’ . . . once anywho? When were done with the lasers and spectroscopy and all of course.

  25. Childermass

    With this laser working so well…

    …the war will be over by Christmas.

  26. Chris

    You know I love that we can see the pictures practically immediately, but as someone who actually uses spectroscopy on a daily basis, I’m aching to see some actual spectra. Anyone know if this info is publicly available?

  27. But where’s the KABOOM? There was supposed to be a Mars-shattering KABOOM!

  28. gameshowhost
  29. Davros

    Curiosity, Is it safe?
    N165 Is what safe?
    Curiosity, Is it safe?
    N165 I don’t know what you mean. I can’t tell you something’s safe or not,
    Curiosity, Is it safe?
    N165 Tell me what the “it” refers to.
    Curiosity, Is it safe?
    N165 Yes, it’s safe, it’s very safe, it’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it.
    Curiosity, Is it safe?
    N165 No. It’s not safe, it’s… very dangerous, be careful.

    stolen from Marathon Man
    with Curiosity playing the creepy dentist and N165 the Marathon Man

  30. DanM

    For us laser jocks in the audience, Phil, what kind of laser? I’m assuming Nd:YAG given the pulse rate and power, but there are other possibilities. I suppose I could probably dig for information on the interweb, but it would be so much simpler if you happen to know… And, incidently, agreeing wholeheartedly with #26 Chris: are spectra public yet? What kind of rock did she turn out to be?

    Any info to share?

  31. Al

    That is superCOOL – or HOT! For a probe to perform such an experiment on Mars totally blows the mind! :-)

    The principle in reference is called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). The technique is one of many laser-related analytical methods, among them is the technique known as laser-induced fluorescence (LIF). For reference, I work with group operating a 22-ton mobile lab unit which is based on a probe utilizing the latter technique to investigate oil-related pollution in the environment:

    http://flic.kr/p/5uZWjX

  32. Al

    That is superCOOL – or HOT! For a probe to perform such an experiment on Mars totally blows the mind! :-)

    The principle in reference is called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). The technique is one of many laser-related analytical methods, among them is the technique known as laser-induced fluorescence (LIF). For reference, I work with group operating a 22-ton mobile lab unit which is based on a probe utilizing the latter technique to investigate oil-related pollution in the environment:

    http://flic.kr/p/5uZWjX

  33. Al

    To someone who works in the field of laser-based spectroscopy, I must say that is superCOOL – or HOT! For a probe to perform such an experiment on Mars totally blows the mind! :-)

    The principle in reference is called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). The technique is one of many laser-related analytical methods, among them is the technique known as laser-induced fluorescence (LIF). For reference, I work with group operating a 22-ton mobile lab unit which is based on a probe utilizing the latter technique to investigate oil-related pollution in the environment:

    http://flic.kr/p/5uZWjX

  34. amphiox

    And somewhere on Mars, a martian prokaryote is penning an account of a giant alien hexapod incinerating its victims with an unstoppable death ray.

    But maybe H.G.Wells got it wrong. The martians were just trying to do a little geology….

  35. Geri Monsen

    I’m confused. How does a laser, which fires light at a specific frequency, help you build up a full spectrum to help you do spectral analysis? Does the laser rotate through a variety of frequencies?

  36. The Laser just provides the heat to “set fire” to the object, that “fire” is what generates the desired spectra. It’s not about simply reflecting the laser light (which would indeed be monochromatic)

    /Z

  37. Geri, All the laser does is heat the rock, It glows/ vaporises a little and the spectra that the Vaporisation gives off is what’s being searched for. A little like Lighting a gold-coloured sparkler with a match.

  38. Nigel Depledge

    George Martin (20) said:

    It is a place they are calling Gelnelg. It’s where three different “geological” formations appear to meet. In case no one noticed, they are aware that the name is a palindrome.

    Erm . . . what?

    AFAICT, Gelnelg isn’t palindromic. Was there a typo in your post?

    Glenelg would be palindromic, as well as easier to pronounce.

  39. Nigel Depledge

    Huh!

    They never let me fire lasers at anything during chem lab . . .

    It was all* “add the acid to the water, like you oughta”.

    * well, mostly. OK, maybe 40%.

    Although, at one time, I did get to use a spec that had a xenon arc lamp, and the lamp was housed in a separate unit that had just one button on the front labelled “Ignite”. The button even had a little flip-up plastic cover.

    And I never even dreamed of re-labelling the button “Nuke”. Nope, that was someone else.

  40. Nigel Depledge

    B (23) said:

    You can’t fire a laser on another planet and not cackle maniacally.

    Seconded.

  41. heng

    Ah, NOW we see the violence inherent in the system!…
    ;-)

  42. Elgarak

    Feel the power from my Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator!
    .
    .
    .
    .
    Where’s the Kaboom?

  43. Ian

    Have we ever done this before? Fired lasers at rocks on another body? Seems this MSL mission is full of firsts, and heralds a new age in space exploration.

  44. Darren Evans

    “We do not come in peace!” :P

  45. Robin

    @Ian (#39):

    We fire lasers at the Moon nearly every day!

  46. Robin

    @ George Martin (#20):

    ChemCam can resolve 1mm at 10m, so that would give a resolution of about 213μm at about 7ft. The largest diameter human hair is on the order of 180μm, so ChemCam can’t quite see resolve that at the specified contrast level. However it’s entirely possible that ChemCam can resolve that hair at a lower contrast than the design spec.

    @DanM (#30):

    The laser is a 1067nm. 30mJ Nd:KGW unit normally operating at 3Hz. Given the 5ns pulses, that gives a peak power of about 6MW.

  47. Bill3

    I always knew NASA were a bunch of carebear miners at heart… shooting lasers at rocks… Pft!!

    (P.S. Phil, that rock on Mars was too remote to make an effective demonstration. The “Alderaan” rock was probably here on Earth.)

  48. #34 Nigel, #20 George:
    Glenelg is a village in Scotland. In accordance with IAU conventions, small Martian craters are named after towns and villages.

  49. Stan9fromouterspace

    Phil, your blog post wins the day for the title alone.

  50. I’m sure that someone at JPL spoke the words …

    “Commence primary ignition.”

    After all, what good is planetary science if you can’t have a little fun with it?

  51. AndresMinas

    It is now official. H.G. Wells got it wrong. WE are the Martians!

  52. JES

    Just wondering: before poking a target pebble with the laser, is it (the rock) subjected to any sort of — at least cursory — pre-zapping analysis? It just occurred to me that it’d be pretty awful if one of the target spots just happened to have some tiny trace of life, if not an actual organism, right there.

    It’d be cool if every time we lasered/drilled a Martian rock, we planted a tiny flag in the hole.

  53. carbonUnit

    Might also be bad if they hit a crystal which reflected the laser back at the rover…

    For the cameras, there are calibration targets on the rover. Is there a similar target of known composition to calibrate the spectrometer? (Did/would Curiosity take a shot at itself?)

    You know this social media thing is out of control when rocks on Mars have Twitter accounts…

    I often see SnorgTees sponsoring the BA blog. They have a hilarious Alderaan weather forecast t-shirt. http://www.snorgtees.com/t-shirts/alderaan-5-day-forecast I can see the Coronation variation on this:

    “And here’s your Mars Microbe News weather forecast for Coronation: Get your sunscreen out, it will be another beautiful Sol, with near zero chance of dust storms and abundant sunshi” ***PFFFFTT***

  54. DanM

    @Robin (#41):
    Thanks, much obliged. All my Nd lasers are YAG or YLF, but KGW seems nicer for low rep-rate applications (i.e., not kHz). Do you happen to know, was it built in-house or outsourced to one of the big laser vendors?

  55. jph

    Phil: “I just wish they had named the rock Alderaan.”

    Too soon…just…too soon.

    I hope Carrie Fisher isnt having flashbacks after seeing this.

  56. Robin

    @DanM (#51):

    The laser was made by Thales, in France.

  57. CatMom

    @Larry M – Star Trek reference FTW!!

  58. Grand Lunar

    I probably expected to see a tiny hole or crater in the rock, if even that.

    I didn’t expect….well, what you just showed us, Phil!

    Humans can do neat things at times.

  59. Old Muley

    “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local Martians in line. Fear of this Science Laboratory.”

  60. carbonUnit

    NASA video describing ChemCam in action:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2w0NzUvEYg

    “That’s no moon, it’s a science laboratory!”

  61. carbonUnit

    Ugh. Not so fully operational as we were led to believe…

    http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9230450/NASA_s_Mars_Curiosity_ready_for_first_test_drive_Wednesday

    “One of Curiosity’s weather-sensing instruments — its Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) – is damaged. The instrument, which sits on the rover’s 7-foot-tall mast, isn’t sending back good data. Though NASA scientists say they may never know what happened, they suspect it was damaged by rocks and debris kicked up by Curiosity’s landing engines.”

  62. Matt B.

    Tatooine is a town in Tunisia; they could use that name. I also think they should name one rock Dantooine and then say it’s too remote.

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