Shock and Awe: Curiosity Laser-Blasts First Mars Rock

The laser-zapped rock "Coronation" -- inset image was taken by the ChemCam instrument, featuring the small laser burn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The laser-zapped rock “Coronation” — inset image was taken by the ChemCam instrument, featuring the small laser burn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After Mars rover Curiosity’s thunderous landing on Aug. 5/6, any hypothetical Martian on the surface would have been forgiven for being a little confused.

Setting down on the flat plain called Aeolis Palus inside Gale Crater, the six-wheeled, one-ton, nuclear-powered rover would have looked more like an alien battle tank being dropped off by a rather ominous-looking “Flying Saucer” than a scientific mission. But after the famous “sky crane” maneuver that lowered the rover with the precision of a Harrier Jump Jet, the “alien” robot didn’t start rolling over the Martian landscape zapping Mars rocks with its laser. Instead, it just sat there. For days. Occasionally there’d be a bit of action — such as Curiosity’s cameras swiveling, mast raising and high-gain antenna tracking the sky — but apart from that, our hypothetical Martians would probably not have thought much of this lack-luster invasion by an airdropped tank.

But that all changed today. Curiosity blasted a rock with its laser, marking the beginning of Curiosity’s Mars domination! Shock and awe, Mars rover style.

Alas, this isn’t a military exercise, but it is significant. Today marks the first day that one of our interplanetary robotic emissaries have used a laser on another planet in the name of science. NASA mission operators gave the go-ahead to carry out a test-run of the Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, targeting a small rock (called “Coronation”) with 30 pulses of its laser over a 10-second period. According to the JPL press release, each pulse delivered more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second.

The fist-sized Mars rock -- called "Coronation", previously designated "N165" -- has become the first casualty scientific target of Curiosity's ChemCam intrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The fist-sized Mars rock — called “Coronation”, previously designated “N165″ — has become the first casualty of war scientific target of Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We got a great spectrum of Coronation — lots of signal,” said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. “Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it’s payoff time!”

The laser works by vaporizing the surface layers of exposed rock. Under the intense heating by such focused energy, a tiny sample of material rapidly turns into plasma. The the flash of light generated by the small, rapidly dissipating cloud of plasma can then by analyzed from afar by the ChemCam’s spectrometer. The light reveals what kinds of elements are contained in the sample, aiding Curiosity’s studies of the Red Planet. And the best thing is that ChemCam appears to be working better than expected.

“It’s surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio,” said ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France. “It’s so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years.”

To find out more about this landmark day for Curiosity and Mars exploration, read the JPL press release: “Rover’s Laser Instrument Zaps First Martian Rock

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Sol 3: Beautiful, Beautiful Mars Dirt. In Color.

Rocks and regolith strewn over the ground near Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Rocks and regolith strewn over the ground near Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It looks like rocks and dust, right? Actually, it resembles the dusty parking lot near a beach where my family used to holiday when I was young — a sandy, ruddy, dusty patch devoid of grass where cars had worn down the top layer of dirt, exposing smoothed rock underneath. However, this isn’t a parking lot. Actually, scrub that, it IS a parking lot — Mars rover Curiosity’s parking lot in Aeolis Palus, a remarkably smooth plain inside Gale Crater on Mars.

I don’t have an awful lot to say about these new high-resolution images that have just been uploaded to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission site except that I really wish I were a geologist! I get the feeling that these images from a never before seen region of Mars will keep geologists busy for some time to come.

As Curiosity undergoes a software upgrade preparing it for surface operations, we’ve been patiently waiting for the mission site to upload new images (beyond the color thumbnail teasers) of the surrounding area. And it seems that on Saturday night that happened. Here are some of my favorite views from Curiosity’s Mastcam:

Curiosity's sundial on its deck reads: "Mars 2012 -- To Mars To Explore"

Curiosity’s sundial on its deck reads: “Mars 2012 — To Mars To Explore”

Discoloration in the top soil in the location of a crater formed by Curiosity's Sky Crane rockets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Discoloration in the top soil in the location of a crater formed by Curiosity’s Sky Crane rockets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The deployed high-gain antenna. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The deployed high-gain antenna. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The crater rim and detail of undulating terrain -- possibly dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The crater rim and detail of undulating terrain — possibly dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sol 2: Rocky Debris on Curiosity’s Deck Hints of Thunderous Landing (Update)

The view through Curiosity's left (A) and right (A) Navcams, looking down on the deck of the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view through Curiosity’s left (A) and right (A) Navcams, looking down on the deck of the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (levels adjusted)

UPDATE (Aug. 9, 2012): During Thursday’s NASA press briefing, I asked MSL mission manager Mike Watkins about the likely impact the debris atop the rover may have on the mission. Although the debris was unexpected, it’s not thought to affect any of the rover’s instrumentation. Read more on Discovery News: “Unexpected Debris atop Curiosity Not a Problem.

On Sol 2 of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, we’re certainly not short of new things to look at. Early on Wednesday, the JPL team released images from the rover’s raised mast. Atop the mast is the blocky ChemCam laser, two Mastcams and four Navcams — a collection of equipment that is colloquially referred to as the rover’s “head.” As soon as the mast was deployed, mission controllers switched on the Navcams and commanded Curiosity to look around its new home.

First up was the striking image of the shadow of Curiosity’s “head,” then came the wonderful “Mojave Desert” view across Gale Crater to its rim. Now, in a new flood of hi-res imagery tonight, images of Curiosity’s deck have been released. Interestingly, there’s some debris strewn over the horizontal surface, indicating the one-ton rover’s landing kicked up a lot more than just dust.

During Curiosity’s descent and landing on Sunday night, the famous Sky Crane maneuver was used to lower the rover to the surface. In doing so, the rockets attached to the platform blew away the surface layers of regolith and small rocks, exposing what appears to be bedrock. The craters generated by the rocket thrust is clearly seen in a couple of Navcam images. Although dust was bound to be thrown into the air, inevitably settling on the rover, small rocks also appear to have been blasted onto the rover’s deck. The largest rock pieces appear to be no bigger than the size of a dime — when comparing them with the dimensions of the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument (in the top left of both frames in the image above). The RAD’s circular “window” is roughly the size of a coaster.

Could the small rocks cause issues with the operation of instrumentation mounted on the rover’s deck? Were they expected to be blown from the ground onto the deck? It will be interesting to hear what will be discussed by the MSL team during Thursday’s 10 a.m. PDT press briefing.

All raw images were grabbed from the NASA JPL mission site.

More cool raw Navcam pics:

The high-gain antenna that will be used for direct communication with Earth is operational. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The high-gain antenna that will be used for direct communication with Earth is operational. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (levels adjusted)

Curiosity's wheels as imaged by Navcam Left A. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity’s wheels as imaged by Navcam Left A. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (levels adjusted)

Sol 2: Welcome to Gale Crater… A Martian “Mojave Desert”

The view from Curiosity's Navcam -- panorama mosaic of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view from Curiosity’s Navcam — panorama mosaic of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is only just beginning its mission and it is already showing us a completely different Martian landscape. However, the rover’s mast has just been raised and returned an eye-level view through the mission’s Navcam to reveal a landscape that looks like the… Mojave Desert. During Wednesday’s NASA press briefing, Curiosity’s Chief Scientist John Grotzinger remarked on the striking familiarity of the “Earth-like” plain with the crater rim in the distance. There is even a little haze in the air that Grotzinger likened to “LA smog.”

While we wait for more incredible views of Mars seen through the eyes of our robotic emissary, it’s easy to get lost in this raw image and imagine how familiar this scene will look when we see it in color.

Warren Olney Show: Mars Curiosity Landing — Featuring JPL’s Allen Chen and… Me!

JPL's Allen Chen, the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. Credit: NASA/JPL

JPL’s Allen Chen, the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. Credit: NASA/JPL

As the Mars dust settles — figuratively and literally — after a hugely successful Mars Science Laboratory landing, I was asked to appear on KCRW’s “To the Point” radio show with Warren Olney. I’ve chatted with Warren a few times and it’s always fun — he’s is a knowledgeable and inquisitive host with a passion for all things space. But Monday’s show was a little bit special. The “voice” of NASA JPL’s mission control was also invited.

Throughout Sunday night’s excitement, JPL’s Allen Chen calmly announced each stage of Curiosity’s entry, descent and landing from mission control. As Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team, it was Allen’s job to remain cool, calm and collected throughout. Listen to hear what he had to say to Warren and myself:

Here’s Allen in action:

Sol 0: Curiosity Bathes in First Martian Sunset (Photos)

This is the view from the front Hazcam of the Mars Science Laboratory "Curiosity." Mount Sharp is in shot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the view from the front Hazcam of the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity.” Mount Sharp is in shot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the first high-resolution photograph to come from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity that landed in the guts of Gale Crater last night. In the shot from the front “hazcam” is an amazing view of the now-famous Mount Sharp. In the photo below, the rear hazcam has captured the Sun low in the sky — the first of, hopefully, thousands of sunsets Curiosity will experience.*

Read more on Discovery News…

The view from the rover's rear hazcam, featuring the rim of Gale Crater and the light of a setting Martian Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view from the rover’s rear hazcam, featuring the rim of Gale Crater and the light of a setting Martian Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

*CORRECTED: This post originally misinterpreted the time of the photograph to be in the Martian morning. The images were actually taken shortly after Curiosity’ landing during the Martian evening.

Mars Rover Curiosity Begins its Martian Domination

Now THAT’s how you land a rover!

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” has landed inside Gale Crater in a damn-near perfect entry, descent and landing (EDL). What’s more, the first photos from the Martian surface were also received only minutes after confirmation of touchdown, depicting a wonderfully smooth plain littered with small rocks.

The first low resolution photo from Curiosity’s hazcam showed a horizon plus one of the rover’s wheels. And then a higher-resolution hazcam view streamed in. Then another — this time showing the shadow of the one-ton rover — an image that will likely become iconic for tonight’s entire EDL. The concerns about the ability of NASA’s orbiting satellite Mars Odyssey to relay signals from Curiosity rapidly evaporated.

Curiosity had landed and it was already taking my breath away.

After a long night in the “Media Overflow” trailer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. On the one hand, I was blown away by ingenuity of mankind — the fact we can launch such ambitious missions to other worlds is a testament to exploration and science in its purest form. But I was also overwhelmed by the spirit of JPL’s scientists and engineers who made this happen. I was humbled to be a member of the media covering the event from mission control. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Tonight is a night to forget politics, this is a night to celebrate NASA and the incredible things they do.

I’ll post more soon, including photos from the event, but for now I need sleep.

What a night.

Welcome to Gale Crater. Credit: NASA

Welcome to Gale Crater. Credit: NASA

Epic Mars Rover Curiosity Video of the “7 Minutes of Terror”

This video has been doing the rounds, so I posted it on Discovery News on Tuesday. My favorite comment from a reader was: “I need a clean pair of shorts.” That means only one thing; it’s time for some epic NASA-created CGI of the entry, descent and landing (a.k.a. “EDL”) of the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” set for landing on the Red Planet on August 5 at 9:30 p.m. (PST). To be honest, the video speaks for itself, so I’ll hand over to EDL Engineer Adam Stelzner (who really needs his own TV show — love his monolog).

Life: Not So Grim On The Galactic Rim?

M80 -- an old globular cluster in the Milky Way -- is full of metal-poor stars. Do they still have exoplanetary potential? (NASA)

M80 — an old globular cluster in the Milky Way — is full of metal-poor stars. Do they still have exoplanetary potential? (NASA)

The galaxy may be brimming with habitable small worlds and many older star systems could possess the conditions ripe for advanced alien civilizations to evolve. This prediction comes in the wake of new analysis of data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope and ground based observatories by a team of Danish and American astronomers.

Led by Lars Buchhave of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, the team has revealed that stars containing low quantities of heavy elements — known as “metal poor” stars — are still capable of nurturing exoplanets with Earth-like qualities.

“I wanted to investigate whether planets only form around certain types of stars and whether there is a correlation between the size of the planets and the type of host star it is orbiting,” Buchhave said.

After analyzing the elemental composition of stars hosting 226 small exoplanets — some as small as the rocky planets in the Solar System — Buchhave’s team discovered that “unlike the gas giants, the occurrence of smaller planets is not strongly dependent on stars with a high content of heavy elements. Planets that are up to four times the size of Earth can form around very different stars — also stars that are poorer in heavy elements,” he concluded.

The Kepler mission, for example, is actively carrying out a search for exoplanets that pass in front of their host stars (events known as “transits”). With Kepler’s sensitive eye, it is capable of detecting exoplanets of similar size to Earth, or even as small as Mars.

Interestingly, as it surveys Sun-like stars, Kepler can detect tiny, rocky worlds that orbit within the “habitable zones” of their stars. It’s no huge leap of the imagination to think alien life may have evolved on some of these worlds.

But a problem facing astronomers hunting for bona fide “Earth-like” exoplanets is that many older stars have low quantities of heavier elements (such as the silicon and iron) that small rocky worlds need to become… well… rocky. But Buchhave’s discovery suggests that stars once considered infertile may in fact have a shot at birthing small exoplanets.

Jill Tarter, Chair of the SETI Institute, points out that this could be a boon for the search for intelligent extraterrestrials. “The idea that very old stars could also sport habitable planets is encouraging for our searches,” she said in a SETI press release on Wednesday.

Tarter also highlights the fact that life took a long time to evolve into an advanced technological state on Earth. Therefore, should there be small habitable rocky worlds orbiting ancient stars (as this research suggests), perhaps alien life far older and more technologically advanced than ourselves are out there.

Although this seems to make logical sense, it may not make biological sense. Metal-poor stars might have the ability to create small worlds, but just because there are likely many small worlds out there, it doesn’t mean life can be nurtured. But then again, regions of the Milky Way once considered to be devoid of exoplanets may now have a stab at providing a planetary habitat for extraterrestrial biology to gain a foothold. Whether or not these metal poor stars host the right ingredients for the building blocks of life probably won’t be known for some time.

In 2009, I wrote an article (see “Life Is Grim On The Galactic Rim“) that grabbed the attention of National Geographic writer Ken Croswell who quoted my Astroengine.com article in the December 2010 edition of the magazine. In the text, I discussed some research that investigated the strange lack of protoplanetary disks around a selection of metal-poor star clusters in the outermost regions of the galaxy. The lack of a protoplanetary disk means a lack of exoplanet-birthing potential and a grim outlook for life to evolve in regions of the galaxy distant from the galactic core.

The conclusion of this 2009 work appears to contradict these most recent findings and the suggestion that advanced alien civilizations may have evolved around metal-poor stars. Whether these stars are the exception rather than the rule, or whether their low metallicity influences the size or visibility of their protoplanetary disks would be an interesting factor to consider.

Although SETI searches have yet to turn up any signal from an advanced alien technology, Kepler is proving that stars — regardless of their metallicity — have the ability to host small rocky worlds. Should life have taken hold on these worlds, then perhaps, some day, we may intercept an interstellar phone call from one of them.

This topic and a myriad of others will be discussed on June 22-24 where the world’s leaders in the field of alien and exoplanet hunting will meet at the Hyatt Santa Clara hotel in California’s Silicon Valley for SETIcon.

UPDATE: After tweeting this article, @spacearcheology retweeted my link with the following comment:

This is something I neglected to consider in the original post. If there are indeed many more small rocky worlds out there — particularly around metal-poor stars that are, by their nature, ancient — why the heck haven’t we detected any ancient extraterrestrial intelligences yet? This has just become the Fermi Paradox PLUS…

Mars Flips Us The Bird

A curiously shaped Mars dune (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

A curiously shaped Mars dune (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Is that a bird? Yes, I can see a bird! A bird on Mars! Aliens must have created it to send us a message! Actually, no, it’s a curiously shaped dune on the Martian surface. My subconscious brain has just processed a familiar shape and my conscious brain did the rest.

Captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), this dune is located in the north polar sand sea (commonly referred to as the “north polar erg”) and it is undergoing the process of defrosting. As the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere is entering springtime, the increased intensity of sunlight is causing carbon dioxide ice (and some water ice) to sublimate into the atmosphere. The ice can be seen as frosty white patches, whereas the dark patches are likely freshly deposited particles from carbon dioxide geysers erupting from the surface.

This is all well and good — how amazing it is to be witnessing the onset of Martian spring at such high resolution! — but it’s the bird head (possibly some kind of falcon?) that drew me into reading about this fascinating HiRISE update in the first place.

This is a fantastic example of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon that makes us see familiar images in apparently random assortments of shapes. It’s the same phenomenon that makes us see the shapes of bunnies in clouds and the face of Jesus in burnt toast. Interestingly, the HiRISE folks didn’t point out the bird head in this particular photo, but considering they recently brought us the “Elephant On Mars,” I’m thinking this is no coincidence. Those sneaky scientists. During the fun elephant escapade earlier this month, HiRISE scientist Alfred McEwen decided to use the “elephantolia” as an opportunity to teach some really cool Martian geology and make us aware of Martian pareidolia. (Apparently an elephant couldn’t outrun an ancient flood of Mars lava, who knew!)

Right around the same time, images were released of the shape of a parrot in a Martian mesa. Unfortunately, the parrot researchers weren’t joking — they seem to wholeheartedly believe some form of alien intelligence is involved. But as demonstrated by the new HiRISE image, the parrot research is totally based on pareidolia (or “parrotolia”). They saw a parrot, and they have spent years proving it’s a parrot. The logical misstep is astonishing.

In fact, I found this whole thing so astonishing that I plucked this particular parrot to death in my most recent Al Jazeera English op-ed. And yes, I used Monty Python to emphasize my point.

Many thanks to Jason Major for pointing out the HiRISE pareidolia!