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Mars rover fires laser beam to yield clues about Red Planet

NASA’s Mars rover, named Curiosity, has used its laser for the first time. Far from being the stuff of science fiction, the high-powered light beam is a practical research tool.

Rover On Earth *** Local Caption *** (News-Item): These are the first images transmitted to NASA laboratory in Pasadena, California of the soil of Mars as photographed by the several cameras of Rover, the first scientific vehicle landing on the planet's soil. NASA's rover Curiosity successfully carried out a highly challenging landing on Mars early Monday, transmitting images back to Earth after traveling hundreds of millions of miles through space to explore the red planet. This is a stunning achievement. The engineering went flawlessly, said Scott Hubbard, who was the first Mars program director at NASA headquarters and is now a consulting professor at Stanford University. The 10 science instruments aboard Curiosity are in perfect health, and testing and calibration are under way, NASA said today. Some rover team specialists are analyzing the data from the landing, while others are preparing Curiosity for exploring Gale Crater, where it landed, NASA said. On its first full days on Mars, the rover is tasked with raising its high-gain antenna, enabling it to communicate directly with Earth at higher data rates. The primary method of transmitting data is through the orbiters, because that is more energy-efficient. Photo via Newscom picture alliance

Mars Farbbilder von Curiosity

The robotic exploration vehicle fired a laser at a rock so that its mineral content could be analyzed.

Curiosity aimed its beam at a fist-sized piece of rock, NASA said in a statement, firing the laser 30 times over a 10-second period.

Each pulse delivered more than a million Watts of power for about one-five billionth of a second to vaporize a small piece of the rock. The light signature produced by the blast was then relayed by a small telescope for analysis using a system known as ChemCam.

Although the initial use of the laser was for "target practice," scientists say they will use the data to examine the composition of the rock, which they dubbed "Coronation."

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation - lots of signal," said ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wien

"After eight years of building the instrument, it's payoff time."

Curiosity is a six-wheeled vehicle, about the size of a compact car. It landed inside a larger impact crater close to the equator of Mars on August 6 after an eight-month, 354-million-mile (570 million kilometer) journey from Earth.

The vehicle's two-year mission is to find out more about whether or not the planet could have harbored microbial life. The vehicle is being tested ahead of its first drive to the target area for the mission, which it will drill for rock samples.

The $2.5-billion (2 billion euro) project is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the Viking probes to Mars in the 1970s. Curiosity is described as the most advanced robotic science lab to be sent to another planet.

rc/av (AFP, dpa, Reuters)