Friday, August 17, 2012

Curiosity Prepares to Rove and Shoot Lasers

Curiosity Prepares to Rove and Shoot Lasers:

This is the environment near Curiosity, showing its first scientific target, Glenelg, and the base of Mount Sharp, where it will eventually rove to. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Less than two weeks after a pitch-perfect landing on Mars, the Curiosity is getting ready to roll along the Martian soil and pull out its rock-shooting laser for the first time.
Since the landing, engineers have been testing Curiosity’s 10 spectacular instruments, checking to make sure they all work. It has measured the local environment, determining the temperature was 37 degrees Fahrenheit. It has also taken photos of the surrounding terrain, such as the image above which shows layered bedrock at the base of Mount Sharp, the rover’s eventual target.
Within the next couple of days, the team plans to test the wheel movements and see if the rover is ready to go, said geologist John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission, during a NASA press conference on Aug. 17.
Assuming Curiosity is in ship-shape, it will move to its nearest scientific targets, surface areas that were scorched by the rover’s descent stage rockets, uncovering some interesting rocks beneath. These areas, seen in the image below, have all been named after important geologic formations in Northern Canada and share the theme of heat: Burnside, Hepburn, Goulburn, and Sleepy Dragon. Grotzginer said that the Goulburn scour has attracted the most attention since it has some interesting patterns of color with lighter and darker parts.

The first major driving target has been named Glenelg, which lies a bit east of the rover’s landing spot. A number of interesting geologic targets lie here, including small craters that will give insight into the Martian subsurface and terrain that will be useful for testing Curiosity’s drill and scoop. When it’s done exploring Glenelg, the rover will need to pass through the area again, hence the palindromic name that the team gave it. “We get it both coming and going,” Grotzinger joked.
Also coming within the next few days are the first tests of Curiosity’s powerful ChemCam laser instrument. Engineers have selected an initial target — a poor little rock named N165 — to fire upon for target practice. The rover will shoot 30 quick laser blasts within 10 seconds, disintegrating a small piece of the rock. The heated material will be imaged with ChemCam’s spectrometer to determine its composition.
This will be the first time the team has turned the laser on. “We’re really excited, we’ve waited eight long years to get to this date,” said Roger Wiens, ChemCam’s principal investigator.
Images: 1) This is the environment near Curiosity, showing its first scientific target, Glenelg, and the base of Mount Sharp, where it will eventually rove to. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona 2) Burn marks made by Curiosity’s descent stage in the Martian soil. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 3) The first rock that the rover will use for laser target practice. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL

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