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NASA's Curiosity rover prepares to fire laser beam at Martian surface

Before embarking on its maiden drive on the Red Planet, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover will fire its rock-vaporizing laser beam. A chemical sensor will sniff the vaporized bits to determine their composition.

By Mike WallSPACE.com / August 17, 2012

This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is slated to fire its rock-vaporizing laser for the first time in the next few days, shortly before the 1-ton robot's maiden drive on the Red Planet.

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Scientists plan to blast a Martian rock called N165 with Curiosity's laser, which is part of the rover's remote-sampling ChemCam instrument. The 3-inch-wide (7.6 centimeters) stone sits just 9 feet (2.7 meters) from Curiosity, well within ChemCam's 25-foot (7.6 m) range, scientists said.

"Our team has waited eight long years to get to this date, and we're happy that everything is looking good so far," ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens, of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told reporters today (Aug. 17). "Hopefully we'll be back early next week and be able to talk about how Curiosity's first laser shots went."

Curiosity, which landed in Mars' huge Gale Crater on Aug. 5, is also gearing up to move its six wheels for the first time. The rover's handlers have said a short test drive could take place around Sol 15 — mission lingo for Curiosity's 15th full day on the Red Planet — which corresponds to Monday or Tuesday (Aug. 20 or 21) Earth time.

Also today, scientists announced the target destination for Curiosity's first big trek — a spot 1,300 feet (400 m) or so east of the rover's landing site that the mission team has dubbed Glenelg. Researchers chose it because Glenelg harbors three different geological units for Curiosity to study. [Photos: Glenelg on Mars - Latest Curiosity Rover Views]

"This was a natural target to pick up," said Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger, a geologist at Caltech in Pasadena. "It looks really obvious."

Firing up the laser

ChemCam, which is short for Chemistry and Camera, fires a laser at Mars rocks and then determines their chemical makeup by analyzing the vaporized bits. It's one of 10 instruments designed to help Curiosity determine if Mars has ever been capable of supporting microbial life.

While researchers haven't turned the laser on yet, ChemCam seems to be in fine working shape, Wiens said.

"We have basically done everything with this instrument except for turn the laser on," Wiens said. "Everything checks out well so far, so we're really optimistic."

Over the next few days, the team will perform some more calibration work with ChemCam, he added. Scientists will also photograph N165 before finally shooting the rock with the laser.

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