WASHINGTON, DC – As the Jet Propulsion Laboratory continues its work with the Mars rover Curiosity, NASA has given the go-ahead to another Red Planet mission. As The Times’ Amina Khan reported:
InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will use a lander to understand how Mars, Earth and other rocky planets were formed in the early days of the solar system.
Planned to launch in March 2016 and reach Mars six months later, the lander would operate for 720 days and give the Red Planet the equivalent of a doctor’s physical — checking its pulse, gauging its reflexes and taking its temperature.
Khan discussed anticipation at NASA over Curiosity’s upcoming first ride on the Mars surface. She also explained how the rover used its laser over the weekend on a nearby rock named Coronation, hitting the softball-size chunk with 30 pulses in 10 seconds.
With more than 1 million watts of power in each 5-billionths-of-a-second pulse, the laser shots from the ChemCam instrument vaporized the rock into plasma. The device then used its spectrometers to analyze the elemental composition.
Like the initial photos taken by Curiosity’s cameras, the laser exercise was meant to test whether ChemCam was working properly. But it could also provide some useful scientific insight. If the composition of the plasma seemed to change over those 30 pulses, then it could mean the laser was digging into successive layers of rock with each pulse.
Scientists and engineers at JPL selected the first drive-to spot, a place about 1,300 feet east-southeast from the rover’s landing area called Glenelg, which is at the nexus of three different types of terrain. One of those types — layered bedrock — would be a tempting first target for Curiosity’s drilling tool.