Curiosity Scientists Select Random Rock on Mars to Shoot With Laser

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N165 is the (un)luckiest bit of basalt on Mars. Which is saying something because there is a lot of basalt on Mars.

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Meet the most boring rock in the world. It's probably basalt, an igneous rock, which makes it like many, many other rocks and pebbles all over the world. 


What makes it interesting is that the world in question is Mars, and this random little piece of stone happens to be sitting near the Mars Curiosity rover on the floor of the Gale crater. 

And, N165, as it is being temporarily called, also happens to have a nice, flat face that happens to be in the range of the rover's laser. 

That all makes this poor little guy a perfect test rock for everyone's favorite Martian robot to fire upon. The rover is going to fire 30 laser bursts over 10 seconds, capturing the light generated by the tiny bit of plasma that the laser will create with each blast. Each element (e.g.oxygen) and rock (e.g. basalt) has a distinctive signature that the ChemCam can detect. This spectrographic technique is fast and will be deployed thousands of times on Mars. 

What do they expect to find when they blast a tiny hole in N165? Well, not much.  "We didn't pick it for its science value per se," said Roger Wiens, the ChemCam principal investigator.

They already think they know, in fact, what they're looking at in this small rock. "If I were to make my guesses, I would probably guess this is a typical Mars basalt," Wiens continued. "Basaltic rocks making up a large percentage of all the igneous rocks on Mars or maybe even all of them... So basalts typically have 48 percent silicon dioxide, and percent amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium oxides, as well. We're not really expecting any surprises."

Yup, this really is just another rock. On Mars.

(Coda: perhaps the most disappointing thing about travel to outer space is that all the same rules apply. Like, it turns out that the laws of the universe are the laws of the universe. And deep down, don't we all just wish that we would go to Mars and suddenly *everything* would be different. On the other hand, it's only the stability of physical laws across these vast distances that allows us to study and understand planets and galaxies and the geology of Mars. So maybe it's a wash.)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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