Surpassing its descent to Mars via a jet-powered robot dropship, Curiosity has just completed its coolest Science Fiction feat yesterday (Sol 13/Aug 19): firing its laser. Sure, it’s less “pew pew” and more “radiation radiation,” but the Chemistry Cam (ChemCam) zapped a wee boulder (appropriately-named Coronation) for Mankind’s first laser “investigation” of an interplanetary rock.

ChemCam hit Coronation with 30 pulses of its laser during a 10-second period. Each pulse delivered more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second. The energy from the laser excited atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma. ChemCam also caught the light from that spark with a telescope and analyzed it with three spectrometers for information about what elements are in the target.

Which, as we noted before, is how NASA/JPL scientists will analyze rock material swiftly and easily: using spectrometers to light-analyze the dust rising from a zapped rock, a process used in nuclear reactors, on the sea floor, and in cancer detection. (GO SCIENCE!) The Washington Post also noted that “according to ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, the data from the initial test is better than data collected on Earth in terms of signal-to-noise ratio.”

The site of the zap:

The zoomed-out wide image was taken by one of Curiosity’s Navigation Cameras (NavCam), while the detailed photos were taken by the ChemCam itself.

Earthside, several NASA/JPL scientists jumped on internet hive Reddit last Thursday for a voluntary “Ask Me Anything,” producing odd digressions like “Good job getting us to Mars, can I have my Algebra book I loaned you 8 years ago” that are characteristic of Reddit threads. But The Atlantic’s Megan Garber had a poignant observation about the different role NASA plays in our lives today–riding on the success of the deified Apollo missions, NASA has settled in to its post-Space Shuttle role of autonomous exploration, promoting the grounded scientists and tech whizzes that made possible our drastically less dangerous Mars exploration:

“But a bigger part of the shift has to do with something largely independent of the Internet: the evolution of NASA as a cultural force. The era of the astronaut was also the era of the astronaut as hero. It was the era that gave us, retroactively, “Rocket Man,” and The Right Stuff, and Apollo 13, and the moonwalk: cultural events that came from a place not just of imagination, but of inspiration. Space was the future; astronauts were taking us there. And so we situated those explorers above the rest of us, figuratively as well as literally. We revelled in epic images of epic men, voyagers who, unsure what they would find, slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.

Now, though, machines are walking where humans once strode. We have our astronauts, still — but the space explorers who are venturing into the unknown are, for the most part, no longer flesh and blood. And that makes it easier for us Earth-bound observers to see NASA for what it is: a human agency, a flawed agency, but an agency that keeps striving for something more. Now, it’s easier for us to see NASA’s staffers not as Heroes, beatified by bravery, but as something much better: as people who do heroic things. People who deserve respect, but not necessarily reverence.”

(Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP)