In a fun twist on the classic sci-fi story War of the Worlds, humanity has sent a 1-ton, atomic-powered robot to Mars to roam around and blast things with a high-powered laser. Twisting things a little further, the robot isn't there to destroy all life, but instead is searching for life — or the signs of it, at least.
Sunday marked NASA's first test of the Curiosity rover's 1-megawatt laser, and whereas blasting things with a laser can be fun, this is (at least mostly) for science.
Remember on Star Trek, whenever the Kirk, Spock and McCoy (or Riker, Data, and Worf) were trapped on a planet's surface, they'd stay warm by blasting rocks with their phasers, making them glow red-hot? That's pretty much what Curiosity is doing, except it's not to stay warm.
[ Related: Curiosity to take first Martian drive this week ]
The phasered rocks glowed because the phaser's beam added energy to the rocks' atoms and molecules. Those atoms and molecules then radiated heat and light. If they wanted to know what the rocks were made of, Mr. Spock could have taken a reading of the light.
The science behind this is called spectroscopy. Since different atoms and molecules emit different colours of light, examining the colours of light emitted by a glowing object shows exactly what atoms and molecules are present inside it. This is used in the lab to analyze samples and by astronomers to tell the composition of stars millions of light years away.
NASA engineers chose a rather unassuming rock nearby the rover to test on, naming it "Coronation". They fired Curiosity's laser at "Coronation" 30 times over 10 seconds, vapourizing part of it into an ionized plasma, and the rover's Chemistry and Camera instrument (ChemCam) took readings of the light given off.
"We got a great spectrum of Coronation — lots of signal," said Roger Wiens, the ChemCam Principal Investigator. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!"
In fact, what they got is even better than they imagined.
"It's surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio," said Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist. "It's so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years."
We're only two weeks into its two year mission, but Curiosity has already wowed us. Its spectacularly daring landing amazed everyone. It has operated flawlessly since then, sending back breathtaking panoramic images. Now its laser and ChemCam systems have operated perfectly. It is set to start its search for signs of life on Mars, whether it existed there in the past, or actually exists there now, somehow.
I don't know about you, but for me, watching Curiosity as it rolls along from discovery to discovery, it's going to be a long two years.