The Mars rover Curiosity has successfully tested its ChemCam laser for the first time on the Red Planet, using it to blast the surface of a small rock.
Part of Curiosity's mission is to figure out whether Mars was ever inhabitable, and whether its rocks contain any kind of fuel. To accomplish this, it will use the laser to check the surface composition of interesting-looking rocks, then drill out powder samples if it wants to further analyse a particular rock.
The first of those techniques is called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. The fist-sized target-practice rock, now known as Coronation but originally given the temporary name of N165, was chosen for the test because it was next to Curiosity and had a smooth surface.
On Sunday it received 30 pulses from the ChemCam laser, each of which created a spark, within 10 seconds. The instrument recorded spectra from these sparks, to establish the chemical composition of Coronation's surface and to see whether the composition changed during the series of pulses.
"We got a great spectrum of Coronation — lots of signal," ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens, of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said in a statement. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!"
ChemCam deputy project scientist Sylvestre Maurice, of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, added that the data received from the Coronation test were better than those from early tests on Earth.
"It's so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years," Maurice said.
On Friday, NASA revealed which part of the Gale Crater it had chosen as Curiosity's first destination.
The rover will head over to an area, dubbed Glenelg, that represents an intersection between three types of terrain. One of those types is layered bedrock, and the team has this in mind for Curiosity's first serious drilling.
Glenelg is around 400m east-south-east of Curiosity's landing site
"With such a great landing spot in Gale Crater, we literally had every degree of the compass to choose from for our first drive," project scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, said in a statement. "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."
"That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration."