NASAs Curiosity rover has successfully analyzed its first Martian rock using the ChemCam! Although only a test, the chemical composition of a nearby rock, named “Coronation”, was determined by firing a laser at its surface and observing the colours of the resulting sparks.
The ChemCam uses an analytical technique known as laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. A laser is fired at a rock causing the atoms within it to be excited into an ionized plasma. The ChemCam then observes and assesses the sparks produced from the rock using a telescope and 3 spectrometers. As the colours of the sparks are characteristic of the different elements in the rock the ChemCam is able to determine the rocks basic chemistry.
During analysis Coronation, which is expected to be a Martian basalt rock, was hit by 30 laser pulses during a 10 s period, with each pulse providing more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second. Although the data is not yet fully processed it’s been reported that the signal was much better than anything the ChemCam achieved during tests on Earth! The first science target for the ChemCam is expected to be Goulburn scour, an area of bedrock exposed during Curiosity’s landing on the Martian surface.
In other good news, Curiosity’s 2 metre long robotic arm has been fully extended for the first time since before launch in November 2011. The arm, which is equipped with a drill, scoop, sieve and spectrometer, is working fine but will undergo several more weeks of testing before being fully up and running.
Unfortunately in the past few days Curiosity has also suffered its first (minor) setback. During landing it appears that cables to sensors on the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) were disconnected. The REMS will be used to provide daily and seasonal weather reports on Mars by measuring air and ground temperatures, air pressure and humidity, wind speeds and directions, and UV light conditions. The cable damage has affected the wind monitors although it is believed that the quality of measurements will only be degraded rather than prevented entirely.
The next aim for Curiosity is to drive on the Martian surface. The four corner wheels have been wiggled to test the steering and commands have now been sent to tell Curiosity to drive forward a few metres before turning and then reversing!