Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Pew! Pew! Laser beams in space!

The Curiosity rover currently on Mars continues its trek to find habitable zones - places where life may have been able to exist in the past.  It does so by using a number of instruments on board.  But what if you can't reach the sample you want to analyse with the robotic arm?  What if you're trying to survey an area to figure out which might be the most interesting place to investigate closer?  Use a laser!

Curiosity is equipped with a laser that is powerful enough to vaporize and ionize rocks and soil, from afar.  These images, taken in May 2013, are of soil being zapped from 3 metres away, and you can see a pit being dug by the shock wave created when the plasma expands (a plasma is ionised gas).  Instruments can then analyse the plasma "cloud", from afar, using a specialised camera, and start to understand what the rock or soil is made of.  It can tell scientists the elements that are included in the rock or soil, and any special characteristics (like if there may have been water present).

This is not the first laser at Mars. The NASA Phoenix lander had a laser aboard, a different kind, contributed by Canada, to analyse the atmosphere. This laser, as part of meteorological station, was used to detect the first snowfall on Mars. You can get more info about the Phoenix mission here and you can see the CSA podcasts that I co-hosted here.  There was also a laser orbiting Mars on the Mars Global Surveyor that mapped the topography, measuring the altitudes of the geological features of Mars.

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