Monday, August 20, 2012

Curiosity: the Laser Zapping Has Begun...

The Curiosity rover carries a megawatt laser on board.  This isn't just for fun, or for playing with Martian cats.  It's part of an instrument system (known as “ChemCam”) that lets scientists analyze the nature of rocks near Curiosity. 

Huh?  How can a laser help analyze rocks, you ask?

Well, it's like this.  First the scientists pick a rock.  Then they aim the laser and a telescopic spectroscope at the rock.  Then they zap the rock with the megawatt laser while capturing data with the spectroscope.  The laser heats a tiny bit of the rock to very high temperatures, creating a glowing plasma.  The spectroscope records the intensity of over 6,000 different wavelengths (colors) of light.  The pattern of these intensities lets scientists infer what elements and compounds the rock is made of.

Reports back from the first use were all positive.  The lead scientist said that (unexpectedly) the data they were receiving from Mars was actually better than that collected in experiment on Earth – the signal-to-noise ratio was superior.  The scientists have no idea why, but they aren't complaining!

No comments:

Post a Comment