Mars rover Curiosity set to zap rock, analyze chemicals

Mars rover Curiosity on the Red Planet

Mars rover Curiosity on the Red Planet

(CNN) — Martian rock N165, it’s your time to shine, or glow, or whatever occurs when a hard substance gets zapped by a laser beam.

From about 10 feet away, the Mars rover Curiosity’s ChemCam was to take aim Saturday night at the hapless three-inch rock.

“We are going to hit it with 14 millijoules of energy 30 times in 10 seconds,” Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory told reporters.

A millijoule is 1/1000th of a joule, which is way too complicated to explain here. Suffice to say, it should get the job done.

ChemCam, short for Chemistry and Camera, will analyze the resulting glowing, ionized gas in an effort to identify chemical elements in the rock.

Scientists say it will be the first time such a powerful laser has been used on another planet. The laser works in conjunction with a telescope.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Friday that Curiosity’s first driving destination will be Glenelg, about 1,300 feet from the rover’s landing site.

“We had a bunch of strong contenders. It is the kind of dilemma planetary scientists dream of, but you can only go one place for the first drilling for a rock sample on Mars,” said project scientist John Grotzinger. “That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration.”

The mobile science lab touched down on Mars early on August 6 and has been beaming back images of the surface of Gale Crater ever since.

The rover’s primary target is Mount Sharp, a peak about 8 kilometers (5 miles) away. But moving about a football field a day, with lengthy stops, it could take nearly a year to reach the slopes at the base of the mountain.

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