A Martian target rock called "Nova," shown here, displayed an increasing concentration of aluminum as a series of laser shots from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover penetrated through dust on the rock's surface. This pattern is typical of many rocks examined with the rover's laser-firing Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument.
In the first two years since Curiosity landed in Mars' Gale Crater in August 2012, researchers have used ChemCam's laser and spectrometers to examine more than 600 rock or soil targets. The process, called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, hits a target with pulses from a laser to generate sparks, whose spectra provide information about which chemical elements are in the target. Multiple laser shots are fired in sequence, each blasting away a thin layer of material so that the following shot examines a slightly deeper layer.
The photograph at left is from ChemCam's Remote Micro-Imager camera, taken during the 687th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (July 12, 2014). It shows a portion of the surface of Nova about 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) wide, centered at the spot where laser shots hit the baseball-size rock that same sol.
The graph at right show the brightness of the resulting spark at a range of wavelengths detected from each of the first 10 laser shots out of 100 total shots fired at the same point on the rock. The initial shots generated less brightness at a wavelength that is diagnostic for aluminum content, compared to shots after the dust coating on the rock had been cleared away by those first few shots.
ChemCam's laser zapping of this rock was the first ever during which Curiosity's arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera took images that caught the spark generated by a laser hitting a rock on Mars (see PIA18401).
ChemCam is one of 10 instruments in Curiosity's science payload. The U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, developed ChemCam in partnership with scientists and engineers funded by the French national space agency (CNES), the University of Toulouse and the French national research agency (CNRS). More information about ChemCam is available at http://www.msl-chemcam.com.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.