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Zap Patrol on Mars

Target Rock “Ithaca” in Gale Crater, Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

ChemCam Remote Micro Imager (RMI) image of the target “Ithaca”. The image is a mosaic of three separate images including the 100,000th firing of the ChemCam laser. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has surpassed 100,000 zaps of its ChemCam laser instrument.

ChemCam zaps rocks with a high-powered laser to determine their composition and carries a camera that can survey the Martian landscape.

The ChemCam concept was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. However, the instrument aboard the rover is a partnership between Los Alamos and the French national space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and research agency, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

Curiosity landed on Mars at the edge of Gale Crater near the base of Mount Sharp on Aug. 6, 2012.

ChemCam’s crosshairs

ChemCam fires a short laser burst that packs the wallop of nearly one million light bulbs into a single pinpoint of light to vaporize rock and dust.

A camera aboard the instrument reads the spectral signature of the resultant flash and translates the information into the composition of whatever happened to be in ChemCam’s crosshairs at the moment. The instrument also has a camera that scientists have been using to survey the Martian landscape.

ChemCam was designed to fire one million shots, said Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist and Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team.

“ChemCam has greatly exceeded our expectations,” said Wiens in a Los Alamos National Laboratory press statement. “The information we’ve gleaned from the instrument will continue to enhance our understanding of the Red Planet, and will nicely complement information from the other nine instruments aboard Curiosity as we continue our odyssey to Mount Sharp,” he said.

By Leonard David

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