Mars Curiosity Rover Zaps First Rock With Laser

As if Curiosity, the hip new Mars rover, wasn’t cool enough with its thrilling descent into the Martian atmosphere and the hype surrounding its gadgets and the scope of its mission, NASA is now reporting that it spent part of the day on Sunday involved in target practice — zapping a rock with a laser beam.

NBC News reports that Curiosity fired 30 pulses at a Martian rock throughout a 10-second window, burning a small hole and turning the target into glowing hot plasma.

“Each pulse delivered more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second,” NASA wrote in a release about the target practice. “The energy from the laser excited atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma.”

According to NASA, the fist-sized rock on the wrong end of Curiosity’s laser, which is called “Coronation,” is the first rock on any extraterrestrial planet to be investigated with such a laser test.

NASA’s most ambitious Mars rover, Curiosity hasn’t done much since landing on the Red Planet’s Gale Crater two weeks ago. The crew has had the rover checking out its various components and the laser test was just that, a test of equipment. Still, even the test could yield scientific results if it reveals the rock’s characteristics.

Curiosity is scheduled for a two-year mission, and the laser will be used to examine various small rocks as it makes its way toward the three-mile high Mount Sharp which rises from the crater.

The Los Angeles Times adds that scientists have found their first place they intend to drive to, an area 1,300 feet southeast called Glenelg. Before that trip though, the rover will take a test drive a few feet forward before turning in a 90 degree angle to get a look at its landing spot.

No doubt that the long drive ahead for Curiosity will include many suitable rocks for the Mars rover’s laser to zap.