Curiosity's ChemCam passes first tests with flying colors


August 27, 2012

Details of ChemCam (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL)

Details of ChemCam (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL)

Image Gallery (5 images)

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has already fired its laser over 500 times as it studies its surroundings as engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) calibrate its sensors. In a classic example of “waste not, want not” Curiosity concentrated its activity on a patch of rocks that were uncovered by the rocket backwash of the sky crane that delivered the unmanned explorer to the Martian surface on August 6.

The outcrop of rocks, designated “Goulburn,” is about 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 m) from where Curiosity landed and is of particular interest to scientists because the sky crane’s rocket blast cleared the patch of dust, allowing the laser a clean shot at the rocks. The results have been welcomed by the mission control at JPL.

“The spectrum we have received back from Curiosity is as good as anything we looked at on Earth,” said Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist Roger Wiens, Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team. “The entire MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) team was very excited about this and we popped a little champagne.”

Photo mosaic of rocks exposed by sky crane's rockets and then zapped by ChemCam (Image: NASA/JPL)

ChamCam is a suite of instruments housed partly on top of the rover’s mast and includes a telescope, the laser and a remote micro-imager provided by the French government space agency, CNES. A fiber-optic cable runs from the mast down to the three spectrometers inside the rover used to analyze the vaporized rocks. When the laser hits a rock, some of the target flashes into a bright plasma, the light of which the spectroscopes can use to detect various elements by their color spectra.

The tricky bit for the scientists was that the Martian atmosphere is 1/100th the pressure of Earth’s. This means that the plasma bursts wouldn't be as bright, so before heading to Mars, ChemCam had to be tested in a Mars simulator to allow for the difference. It also provided scientists with a set of spectrographs that they can compare to the data returned by Curiosity to make sure that ChemCam is operating properly.

These test shots are the first of 14,000 that ChemCam is scheduled to make over the next two years. According to NASA, Curiosity’s next task will be a second short drive to test the rover’s systems.

Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

Hopefully all of Curiosity's systems are designed to work for as long as the nuclear power source provides power.


Well if there are little bacteria living there we just became the evil alien invaders with lasers.

Aaron Baker

So this explains all those Aliens arriving on Earth Movies. They were not attacking us, They were testing their chemical analysis lasers. They didnt care about us at all, it was the rocks under use they wanted.

Timothy Sisson

re; Aaron Baker It takes a little more than killing bacteria to be evil.

re; Timothy Sisson Technically true unless they wanted slaves and/or food as well.

While we have to remember that funny looking people are in fact people until a Martian shows himself I am not going to worry about killing bacteria or modifying the martian environment.


Killing Martian bugs would not be a concern, at least according to contemporary thinking. Every living thing dies eventually anyway. On the contrary, there are major worries are about bringing along any of our Earth bugs by mistake. If Mars were to become contaminated by terrestrial bacteria, we might end up having trouble telling their bugs from ours. Worse yet, we might never be certain whether the planet has (or ever did have) any of its own native organisms.

On the bright side, Mars is so cold, the atmosphere is so thin, and water is so scarce, that most earth bacteria would not be able to reproduce. Even if they did somehow manage to work out a life cycle in such inhospitable conditions, Earth organisms would almost certainly grow very, very slowly.

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