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Mars Rover Lasers Rocks, Sparks 'Plasma Plume' [VIDEO]

Jul 17, 2014 01:23 PM EDT
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NASA's Mars Curiosity rover lasered a baseball-sized Martian rock just last weekend, and experts got to see the flash of a resulting plasma plume for the first time.

"This is so exciting! The ChemCam laser has fired more than 150,000 times on Mars, but this is the first time we see the plasma plume that is created," ChemCam Deputy Principal Investigator Sylvestre Maurice said in a statement. "Each time the laser hits a target, the plasma light is caught and analyzed by ChemCam's spectrometers."

According to Maurice, who hails from France's National Center for Scientific Research, the ChemCam laser hooked up to NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has been used on more than 600 geological samples since the rover landed in the landing zone ellipse of the Gale Crater in 2012.

However, the ChemCam team was never given an opportunity to physically see for themselves if the instrument was performing exactly as intended on Mars. Instead, they had placed their trust in diagnostic and monitoring instruments essential for Curiosity's continued health.

"What the new images add is confirmation that the size and shape of the spark are what we anticipated under Martian conditions," Maurice explained.

The images in question were taken on July 12, mere weeks after the Mars rover finally left the landing ellipse and rolled into new unexplored parts of the Red Planet.

Curiosity used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on its extended arm to capture the ChemCam in action. Images taken at about five frames per second helped create a flickering movie of the laser striking a rock designated as "Nova." The resulting plasma "sparks" between laser pulses were caused by sparks and jostled dust.

Accordng to NASA, the analysis of Nova indicated a rock composed of silicon, aluminum and sodium.

"This is typical of rocks that Curiosity is encountering on its way toward Mount Sharp," the ChemCam team reports.

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