Tag: laser

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
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Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

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

That's not what the Batsignal is supposed to look like!

By Phil Plait | September 23, 2012 7:00 am

The dark night rises?

[Click to stimulatedemissionate.]

Nope. This way cool picture is actually the Very Large Telescope observatory in Chile, though that really is a laser being shot into the sky. Our atmosphere boils and writhes, distorting the view of the stars. There’s a layer of sodium atoms in the atmosphere far above the ground, and the laser is designed to make them glow. This creates a very bright point-like source of light that the telescope can view, and measure in real time how the atmosphere is messing up the observation. This can then be compensated using very fast computers and adjustable mirrors, and the result is a far sharper image than could be obtained otherwise.

During this 30 minute exposure, the Earth rotated enough to trail the stars, and the laser was moved to stay on target. That’s why the stars are curves, and the normally pencil-thin laser looks like it does. It makes for a pretty slick effect! Shorter exposures are pretty amazing, too, and I have several linked in the Related Posts section below for your amusement.

Image credit: ESO/J. Girard

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Beam me up!
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Oh great. Now we have lightning equipped with lasers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

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:

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Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield
Curiosity landing site: the whole mess


The rocket, the laser, and the northern lights

By Phil Plait | February 26, 2012 7:00 am

Some pictures just have it all. Like, say, a rocket and a laser and an aurora:

OK, that’s awesome. All it needs is a rampaging T-Rex to be the greatest single picture ever taken. [Click to enalfvénate.]

So what you’re seeing here is a wide-angle lens time exposure of a rocket launch on February 18, 2012, from Fairbanks Alaska at the Poker Flat Research Range. The aurorae are obvious enough; they’re the green glow in the sky. The bright streak is the rocket going up, and the pink hook halfway up is the first stage dropping away — note how the streak dims from the ground up to that point, then brightens again when the second stage ignited.

The green streak on the left is a laser being shot into the sky. Lasers excite (give energy to) atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, and that can be used to measure what’s going on up there. The beam appears to curve because this is a wide angle lens which distorts the geometry of the image.

So why the launch? On board the rocket was the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator (MICA) mission, designed to measure the magnetic and electric fields high above the Earth during an aurora — so it’s no coincidence that you’re seeing the northern lights here. Alfvén waves are a way for magnetic fields to move energy around, and they’re generated in certain kinds of aurorae. By measuring them with MICA, we can learn more about how the Sun’s magnetically-driven interacts with Earth’s own magnetic field, producing aurorae. And it’s a good time to do this: the Sun has been spitting out lots of energy lately, which has been generating aurorae left and right. As we head into the peak of the current solar cycle — sometime next year, probably — it’ll be the green golden age for studying how it affects the Earth.

Image credit: Lee Wingfield, NASA Wallops

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Science

Oh great. Now we have lightning equipped with lasers.

By Phil Plait | September 6, 2011 6:20 am

Oh, when will scientists learn? First it was laser pointers, then sharks with lasers. Now? Lightning storms with lasers.

[Click to enteslanate.]

What could possibly go wrong? Dun dun DUNNNNNNNN.

OK, fine. In reality, this picture actually shows a storm approaching an observatory testing out a new type of laser guide star system; lasers can be used as a way of increasing the resolution of telescopes. The storm was still a ways off, but from the photographer’s view the laser was superposed over it, and happened to catch a pretty dramatic lightning bolt in the picture.

I was interested to read that the laser had a power of about 20 Watts. A decent green laser pointer has a power of roughly 1/5th of a Watt, so this one is 100 times as powerful. I’ve used a 1 Watt hand-held laser before, and it literally scared me; it was so bright it felt like a weapon. The laser seen above is a lot brighter yet, and they need to have spotters when they’re used to make sure no airplanes are nearby. The beam might (under extraordinary circumstances) damage the plane, and would surely blind the pilot; not a happy circumstance.

Of course, lightning is even more powerful. After this picture gets around, I expect SyFy will air "Megalaser versus Superlightning". Which I would totally watch.

Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

NASA shoots the Moon

By Phil Plait | September 29, 2010 11:30 am

Clearly defeated in their attempt to destroy the galaxy with a laser, NASA sets its sights somewhat closer and tries to destroy the Moon:


Cooooool. Actually, while that is a laser, it’s a bit too low power to do any damage to our friendly Moon. But it does have enough to help NASA track satellites! It’s part of the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Laser Ranging Facility in Maryland. We know the speed of light very accurately, so if you ping a satellite with a laser beam you can time the pulses and very accurately determine the satellite’s position.

In this case, two beams were being used to track the position of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of my favorite space missions of all time (to see why, check out this gallery of images I posted recently).

I used to work at Goddard, and I remember going to this facility once because it was a dark site from which I could try to spot a comet that happened to be passing us at the time. The laser was being used, and it was positively awe-inspiring and quite surreal to see it streaking up into the sky. And yes, they have to keep a careful eye out for airplanes and such flying past. While that beam isn’t enough to melt a satellite, it’s certainly enough to fry a pilot’s eyes!

Which is why you don’t want sharks equipped with these things. Really, that’s just asking for trouble.

Image credit: NASA


Beam me up!

By Phil Plait | September 7, 2010 7:00 am

Some astronomical pictures are simply and truly cool.

And this, my friends, is near the top of the list.


[Click to enlasenate.]

Yes, the wow factor is high with this one! And the thing is, what you see is what you get: it’s a laser shooting out of an observatory straight up into the heart of our galaxy!

The observatory is of the European Southern flavor, in Chile. It houses the Very Large Telescope, which has a very nice little tool it can use: a laser guide star. The laser shoots up into the sky and excites atoms in the upper atmosphere, causing them to glow. That makes an artificial and very bright star in the sky! The telescope can then use that star to track the distortions in the atmosphere and compensate for them, allowing the images it makes to be incredibly clear and sharp.

Although it doesn’t say so explicitly in the press release, given where the laser is pointing I’m guessing they were observing stars orbiting the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: laser, Milky Way, VLT

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