Pew! Pew! Take *that*, Mars!

By Phil Plait | October 24, 2012 7:00 am

Hey, remember that one ton nuclear rover we sent to Mars? Yeah, that. On October 20, it aimed its megaWatt laser at the sand on Mars and blasted it 30 times in rapid succession, carving out a hole about 3 mm across. NASA kindly has provided a before-and-after animation of the damage inflicted on the Red Planet:

Cool, eh? [Click to coherentlightenate.]

Curiosity’s laser is designed not as a weapon against a hapless Marvin, but instead to do actual science. It very rapidly heats the rock (or sand or whatever) to the point where it vaporizes. Material heated like that glows, and in fact glows at very specific colors. By identifying those colors, scientists can determine precisely what the material is composed of. I gave the details in an earlier post when Curiosity zapped its first rock. You should read it, because spectroscopy is cool, and I spent many years doing it.

This sand was chosen to get lasered because it’s made of fine grains that are blown by the wind. Some Martian sand is bigger, some smaller, but it’s all pretty much formed from eroded rocks. But different grains may have different compositions, and be blown around differently. The only way to know is to find out. So Curiosity will be blasting various things as it roves around Gale crater, its home for the next two years.

Curiosity’s real name is Mars Science Laboratory, and it’s useful to keep that in mind. It’s not just some golf cart tooling around the planet; it’s a fully functional science lab, with cameras, spectroscopes, sampling devices, and more. Everything it does is so we can learn more about Mars. What’s the the history of the planet? Why is its geology the way it is? What’s the deal with it used to having water? Where’d it all go?

I think these are questions worth exploring, even if it means blasting tiny holes in the planet to find out.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGN/CNRS. Tip o’ the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator to Keri Bean, including the idea for the title.

Related Posts:

Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
Wheels on Mars
One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind
Curiosity looks Sharp
Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Science
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, laser, Mars

Comments (45)

  1. Chris

    Did they use the laser to ablate the shiny specks they saw on the ground? Seems like an easy way to find out what they are.

  2. Pete Jackson
  3. Jay

    Its good to know no planets were harmed during this test!

  4. Dream InColor

    If color is so important to spectral analysis, and all this technology is tax-funded, why are the images black and white? There should be a live feed that shows the the high-res color shots. Otherwise it’s not science for the masses just dumbed down media BS. This isn’t classified data is it? We already had a tweet from the MSL suggesting it was a ghetto rimmed hood cruiser “see me rollin on my dubs” what kinda ebonics is that. Let’s actually learn somehing for a change.

  5. Carey

    What’s the deal with it used to having water?

    This sentence hurts my grammar gland :)

  6. Kris

    When will they broadcast the results of what they find?

  7. We come,we explore,we conquer,we occupy.

  8. Chris

    Every time I hear about the ChemCam laser, I think of the original “War of the Worlds” movie. Those weren’t death rays, they were just doing a little laser induced breakdown spectroscopy.

  9. Marvin Martian

    Oh goody! My illudium Q-36 explosive space modulator. … I’m going to blow it up; it obstructs my view of Venus.

  10. Calli Arcale

    “Fully functional science lab.” In a post about a powerful laser blasting a planet.

    That immediately made me think of “fully armed and operational battle station.” 😀

  11. Richard Gadsden


    Mars doesn’t have geology, it has areology.

  12. “remember that one ton nuclear rover we sent to Mars?”

    “Curiosity’s laser is designed not as a weapon against a hapless Marvin”

    The truth NASA won’t admit: Curiosity is powered by an Illudium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator.

  13. thomas

    The Martians are planning their response as we sit here stupidly assuming they don’t exist.

  14. mikel

    So, has Mars surrendered yet?

  15. Blathering Blathiscope

    If it was me controlling Curiosity I wouldn’t be able to resist burning my name into a Martian rock wall on mars.

    Maybe they could charge people $1,000,000 per name. Help fund NASA.

  16. Where is the US flag located on MSL? My wallet was laser-ablated to pay for it. I want to see the receipt.

  17. ken

    I just love the irony that earth landed a saucer shaped disk on Mars and now a robot with a laser gun is going around vaporizing things.

  18. The Bobs

    Who cares about the hole? The data is what is interesting, if we ever see it. Where do they post stuff like that?

  19. VinceRN

    We shot a hole in Mars with a freaking laser! We invaded Mars armed with a megawatt blaster! I love waking up to news like this from Mars. When almost everything else we see on the news is depressing this kind of thing reminds me there is still some hope left for us apes.

    @Uncle Al #10 – You’ve asked that question and been answered here before.
    Why does it matter? You expecting someone to come along and see it sitting there in the martian desert some day and wonder who built it?

    As for whining about the cost, your wallet is ablated twenty times as much each year just in medicare fraud. More is spent on military programs that the military doesn’t want or need and on coutless other inefficiencies and redundancies across the government. All that money for NASA created jobs, skilled, high end jobs here in America and it developed new technologies that are paying off every day. This is one of the most efficient and most useful things government spends money on.

  20. BJM

    Re: #3. Carey Says: This sentence hurts my grammar gland

    “What’s the deal with it used to having water?”

    Right. Everyone knows its supposed to be
    “What’s the deal with it used to *have* water?”

  21. Okay, the big question is, did we ask permission before blasting that hole in Mars?*
    *Longtime readers may recall the source of the [quote] joke [unquote].

  22. I’d have been happy with “illuminate”.

    Mars has geology. The geologists are on Earth.

    OK, so the nomenclature is all messed up. But that’s par for astronomy. Earth is named after dirt, but it’s mostly covered with water. Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. And bipolar nebulae don’t need powerful drugs to improve their behavior. Black holes are neither black, nor holes. The Schwarzschild Radius is called the point of no return, but it’s not a point. In fact, there’s no “there” there. The IAU is in charge of astronomical nomenclature. That’s the folks who gave us the definition of the word “planet”. But calling it astronomical nomenclature is pretty accurate. There’s alot of it.

  23. CB

    Despite being my favorite instrument on Curiosity, I should point out that “precisely” may be a bit over-stating, at least in terms of determining what a sample is made of. John Grotzinger, science lead for the mission, has on several occasions described it as more “qualitative” compared to instruments like APXS. Best for just getting an overall picture of the elements and their relative quantities, rather than getting precise measurements.

    It is precise in terms of the small area which it samples, so in that sense it is a good compliment to APXS and other instruments. Plus it’s a remote sensor, easy to use with minimal movement required (just pointed the mast and adjusting the focus on the telescope). So they’re using it a LOT. Which I love. Images of Mars rocks with laser holes in them are pretty much my favorite thing right now.

    Oh BTW as long as I’m nitpicking, here’s a much less important nit: Curiosity is the real name of the rover. Mars Science Laboratory is the name of the mission, which includes the rover, but also all the other components like the space craft that brought Curiosity to Mars.

  24. CB

    @ Dream InColor:

    Since “Let’s actually learn somehing for a change” doesn’t seem to include you going to Google and typing in “MSL” to see if there’s more to be learned, let me help you out with this:

    Those are the raw images pulled off of Curiosity’s 17 cameras, posted online soon after they are downloaded.

    Notice how there are plenty of color shots if you select shots from one of the color cameras, which are Mastcam, MAHLI, and MARDI. The shots in the article happened to be taken with the b/w ChemCam camera. Just go to the regular ‘image’ archive if you want to see the highlight reel with lots of color pictures.

    Also, color is critical to spectroscopy but it isn’t done by snapping a picture of the plasma with a CCD. In fact the Camera that’s in ChemCam is B/W because it’s mostly just to get some context for what’s been shot. The spectroscopy is done by feeding the light caught down a fiber-optic cable to a spectrometer, which just spits out numbers for each frequency.

    Sorry if I rained on your enjoyment of calling it all “media BS” by pointing you past the media BS.

  25. OtherRob

    @kuhnigget, #20:

    Yes, I do recall the source of your joke. Unfortunately, that kind of … “specialness” is hard to forget. 😉

  26. mike burkhart

    Looks kind of like an eye opening and closeing. Reminds me of the Cylopes , one eyed giants with a taste for humans mention in Greek Mythogy. Maybe we could make a song “The eye of Mars is upon you” or The red planet is watching you .

  27. Joey Dern

    Poor Mars just cant see mto catch a break can it lol

  28. @11. Richard Gadsden

    HA! Shows what you know. Mars don’t got nipples.

  29. JB of Brisbane

    “Got the drop on you with MY Disintegrating Pistol!”

  30. Steve D

    “Where is the US flag located on MSL?”

    I showed my patriotism by serving 21 years in the Army, active and Reserve. I don’t need a flag pin and I don’t need flags on my spacecraft.

  31. bullsballs

    flags?!? we don’t need no stinkin flags!!!

  32. Carbon

    If it turns out that Mars is actually a huge, living sentient being, who just happens to “look” like a planet, we’ve just done a horrible, horrible thing.

  33. Richard Gadsden @ #11 said: “Mars doesn’t have geology, it has areology.”

    Sorry, it has geology – Martian geology.

    If we had to use a new word for every planet and moon we undertook geology on, the whole naming process would fall down. Hermeology? Venerology? Iology? Callistology? Iapetology? The geological processes happening on these planets and moons are similar, as are the processes we use to study them. Giving them different names creates artificial, unnecessary and confusing differences.

    For the same reason, I think you’ll find the people who look after spacecraft trajectories generally use ‘apoapsis’ and ‘periapsis’, rather than create a new pair of terms for the object their spacecraft happens to be orbiting (with the Earth an obvious exception).

  34. @#2 Pete Jackson, #5 Carey, @#8 Chris.

    I love laser threads. Full of win all ’round :)

    Also, what #19 VinceRN said. I’m just too tired to cut and paste right now 😀

  35. @34 PeterB: *snicker* “Venerology” sounds like the study of STDs.

    @ Richard Gadsden: In Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, Martian colonists sometimes used terms like “areology,” but for them it was sorta political – in that series (spoiler alert), Earth has gone to hell, Terran corporations are wreaking havoc and killing people, and Martians want to be as Martian as they can possible be. ‘Nother words, I don’t see any compelling reason for us to make things more difficult for ourselves by using new words, as we’re hardly in that situation :)

    I wonder – if Curiosity just pointed its laser at a rock and used all its available power to zap it continuously, could it bore a hole through the rock? How many millimeters per hour could it excavate? Could it use the technique to get a subsurface analysis of rocks that can’t be accessed by the robotic arm drill? Ok, ok, I’m just looking for excuses to see things zapped as much as possible :)

  36. Nigel Depledge

    Dream in Color (4) said:

    If color is so important to spectral analysis, and all this technology is tax-funded, why are the images black and white? There should be a live feed that shows the the high-res color shots. Otherwise it’s not science for the masses just dumbed down media BS. This isn’t classified data is it? We already had a tweet from the MSL suggesting it was a ghetto rimmed hood cruiser “see me rollin on my dubs” what kinda ebonics is that. Let’s actually learn somehing for a change.

    First, spectroscopy does not rely on such imprecisions as colour photographs. The spectroscope will be an instrument separate from all the cameras.

    Second, most astronomical colour images do not rely on a colour sensor per se, but instead have multiple monochrome exposures taken through different coloured filters. I do not know (and can’t be bothered to look up) if any of Curiosity’s cameras have colour sensors like the ones you might find in a standard digital camera, but these would not be anywhere near good enough to use for spectroscopic analysis of anything.

  37. Valhar2000

    most astronomical colour images do not rely on a colour sensor per se, but instead have multiple monochrome exposures taken through different coloured filters

    Every digital camera works like this. They have an array of individually colored filters that cover each sensor, and it is by combining the data from each color that you get a color picture. By weighting each set of data, you can adjust the color balance.

    The only exception to this I know of is the Foveon sensor, which has individual color-sensitive photo-receptors stacked on top of one another: each one is opaque to the color it measures, and transparent to the others, so each sensor can take a reading, even if it is behind others. It has advantages and disadvantages, but it hasn’t been able to get much of a foothold in the market so far.

  38. davem

    Am I the only one who looked at that photo first time beofre reading the text, and thought that it was of the whole of Mars from a satellite?

  39. CB

    @ Nigel & Valhar

    All of Curiosity’s color cameras use Bayer filters, the same pattern used in your digital cameras here on earth, so the (non-white-adjusted) pictures are basically what you’d see if you were there and snapped a photo with your own camera. Previous rovers used B&W cameras with swappable filters to produce color photos.

    Oh, and I should kinda correct myself. Technically the ChemCam spectrometer does use a CCD to measure the data so you could call that ‘taking a picture’. But it does it by splitting the light with a prism, so each frequency hits a unique location on the sensor.

    As a matter of basic professional courtesy (and contract), it’s traditional to allow the principle investigators for a project sole access to the data their instrument is acquiring for a period, to give them first crack at making discoveries from it. The raw data will be available eventually (though probably not on the MSL website) for others to pour over.

  40. casandra

    Good!!! And what did they find?

  41. Hooch

    We all know wat it is doing,What is it finding?

  42. Nigel Depledge

    @ Valhar2000 (39) and CB (41) –

    Ah, I stand corrected.

  43. J. A. Goska

    Yeah, science is cool, but the important thing here is that a ray gun has been fired on Mars. Asimov, Heinlein and E. E. Smith would have taken it in stride, but I hear Bradbury would have been just as glad if the future never happened.


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