UPDATE: 1:10 p.m. EDT. That's all for today, thank you for your wonderful questions! Nasa is calling us and we have to spend the night on Mars. We'll check back to answers some more questions so feel free to vote :-)
A short bio: Since August 2012, we have been operating the ChemCam instrument on the NASA Curiosity rover. We use this instrument to analyze lots of rocks and soils around the rover with a powerful laser. Ask us anything!

With you today :

  • Sylvestre Maurice - ChemCam principal investigator deputy (Toulouse, France)
  • Olivier Gasnault - Science operations lead for ChemCam (Toulouse, France)
  • Éric Lorigny - MSL French Contributions Project Manager (Toulouse, France)
  • Valérie Mousset - Computer systems engineer (Toulouse, France)
  • Valérie Payré - PhD student working on the interpretation of ChemCam data, especially for minor elements (Nancy, France)
  • Susanne Schröder - ChemCam science team member working on data analysis and laboratory experiments (Berlin, Germany)
  • Charles Yana - ChemCam data exploitation engineer (Toulouse, France)

Oh. And we can answer in French and English :)
The Proof: https://twitter.com/CNES/status/793098784817422336

Comments: 229 • Responses: 41  • Date: 

3v3nt_hor1zon85 karma

Until when the laser is going to keep shooting rocks?

cnespace155 karma

We have now shot the laser about 400.000 times and it can do a lot more like 3 Million shots. We shoot as long as we can, pew pew! **Susanne

3v3nt_hor1zon29 karma

What will be the main factor determining the "as long as we can": energy available for the rover? Money to pay you guys?

cnespace56 karma

Hard to say. Money should be ok because it is such a great asset on Mars; we’ll have to use it to its end. The energy is decreasing indeed, slowly. It is predictable. What we fear is always an “unexpected” break… So we don’t know. Temperature differences between day and night is 90°C. That is hard on the hardware. Dust accumulating everywhere is also a pain.

kalgan_19 karma

What are the problems with dust accumulating, as Curiosity don't have solar panels? Mechanical problems?

cnespace37 karma

Yes dust is a pain because it circulates everywhere in the rover, being pushed in and out by the flow of air induced by the difference of temperatures between days and nights. And this dust can land anywhere, electronics, optics, mechanisms…
We have put filters, but Mars dust is so small, on the order of microns (meter), it gets everywhere. Mechanisms are the most sensitive devices to Mars dust -- it is a problem indeed.

candeles29 karma

cnespace53 karma

Like we do. But our laser is real.

3v3nt_hor1zon7 karma

what about the wheels (I remember hearing last years about holes)?

cnespace18 karma

You’re right, we have some issues with the wheels (little and big holes made by very hard rocks). We’re carefully looking at this issue and rover team is trying to ride the best way not to injure too much the wheels.
Of course we’ll try to maintain the rover as healthy as possible to continue our great job on Mars and to discover again and again. According to calculation, we still have many kilometers on our belt. No reason to worry :)
Valérie M.

knightni7362 karma

Aren't you worried that Marvin will get his Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator up and running and fire back?

cnespace66 karma

No, we have a 1GigaWatt/cm2 laser on Mars, so we don’t fear anyone, not even Marvin!

orangejulius40 karma

What's the most exciting thing you've discovered so far?

cnespace80 karma

The whole MSL mission has discovered that Mars was in the past an Habitable world. This is HUGE. A few years ago, there was only one habitable world in the Solar System. Now we have two. That does not make a statistics, but that tells us a bit about the billions and billions of habitable worlds in the Universe. Mars WAS habitable, which means that there was liquid water, with neutral pH, CHNOPS elements, and energy. **Sylvestre

3v3nt_hor1zon19 karma

If the team had found life on Mars, would it have been revealed to the public?

cnespace76 karma

No, we don’t want to share our green martian friends with you ;)
But seriously, this would be an awesome discovery and it would be of course shared with the world but it would not be published before several tests and confirmations to be absolutely sure we were right.

orangejulius28 karma

What are your impressions of SpaceX and Elon Musk's ambition to bring humans to Mars?

What are some of the large obstacles to sustaining human life on Mars that might not be as obvious?

cnespace42 karma

Elon Musk is an amazing manager with great ideas. His will to explore Mars is not new, and he is right to shake the world with such a fantastic goal. However, this adventure will involve the whole international community, more than SpaceX.
Now when it comes to a shedule, I have no idea. Not soon. We have been many times to Mars but we have never come back. This is difficult to land a rocket on Mars and to launch from there is a challenge. [By the way, with regards to other project to Mars, a one way trip is not (ethically) acceptable].

flashcordon27 karma

Did you have to find ways to bypass failures on the instrument? Are you worried about how it could behave in the next few months?

cnespace37 karma

We recently lost a laser diode allowing to focus on targets. We managed to bypass this by a software recovery. This was not easy to recover this situation (6 months long) but it was an amazing experience with a big team building. Now, the instrument is working even better than before !!
Valérie M.

Shynwei16 karma

Curiosity won't last forever. What do you guys plan to do after such an important mission ?

cnespace23 karma

After such an important mission as Curiosity, we have several others important missions after this one. Insight is foreseen in 2018 and M2020 in 2020 to try to find life on Mars. So a lot of exciting missions are in the pipe.

Shynwei7 karma

Does it mean your team is already "signed up" for these next missions ? Or is it a wish and you guys will need to "apply" in any way ?

cnespace12 karma

The instruments boarding is pretty safe. I think we are all proud of working on such amazing projects and we are ready to spend our 7 next years to prepare and operate the instruments on the Insight (SEIS) and on Mars2020 (SuperCam). When you get addicted to Mars, you never stop ;-)
Valérie M.

Indecentapathy16 karma

If you could start the mission from scratch with the knowledge you have now, would you do anything differently?

Like use different parts for the laser, etc.

cnespace17 karma

With regard to ChemCam we would not change anything. But discovering Gale crater, every new discovery triggers new exciting questions that sometimes cannot be answered with the Curiosity payload. Upcoming missions will be equipped with instruments that are upgrades of other mission instruments and the payload selections are done with regard to the new questions/challenges.

3v3nt_hor1zon9 karma

not even put a back-up diode for the laser focus? ;)

cnespace15 karma

No, adding a lot of equipment in backup weight a lot at the end. The software solution is fully compliant with our needs. The lighter solution on Mars is often the best one (with same performances).

chickenman032115 karma

Can you blow up mars with your laser?

cnespace38 karma

No way. I wish our laser was more powerful. We can heat up rocks at more than 8000°C, that is not too bad, but barely enough to dig a half-mm hole… Not more.
Exploding planets is not politically correct… whatever Darth Vader says.

chickenman032111 karma

Can you at least make popcorn?

cnespace24 karma

Bring the corn, we’ll do the “cuisine”
Valérie P

Bardaf12 karma

Est-ce que c'est pour dessiner un truc à sa surface ? Les derniers qui ont tenté le coup se sont plantés.

cnespace38 karma

Yes ChemCam can write dotted-words on Mars. But the shapes of our rasters are determined for science only. It would be unethical to write names, brands, or other logos. Sorry, we are just too serious!

Oui, Chemcam peut écrire des mots en pointillés. Mais les formes de nos séquences de tirs sont guidées par la science. Ce n’est pas éthique d’écrire des noms, des marques, ou d’autres logos. Désolé, nous sommes trop sérieux !

McTurtel11 karma

¿Could the laser ever do any damage to other rovers? (Like maybe a cool rover vs robert fight)

cnespace13 karma

Our laser is really powerful but during a really short time (few nanoseconds). So in fact, we try already to avoid shooting on our own rover. There is no other rover near us but after seven meters of distance our laser becomes very weak.

McTurtel4 karma

Follow up question: ¿What kind of damage can the laser do if it's pointed to the rover?

cnespace11 karma

It should look like a needle attack. We can probably damage the painting on surface, but not a real damage.

arcerath10 karma

How did you select the personnel for your team?

cnespace14 karma

To build a team working on Mars it is important to have a good team spirit because it is a lot of stress each day. To assure this team spirit, we try to find different flavor for each person in order to have a complete team. But nobody is perfect we are only humans…
Beside that, they are selected for their professionnal skills and to handle stressful situations.

syupweque9 karma

What sort of data can you get by analyzing the rocks and soil. How will that data be useful?

cnespace14 karma

With ChemCam, we get LIBS spectra, emission spectra that permit us to quantify compositions of rocks. We can also take images with high resolution using our RMI, in order to geologically contextualize our LIBS shot! But there are other instruments, that help us to understand the mineralogy of rocks, etc… These data enable us to understand Martian geology and thus early terrestrial geology and if life has been possible in the past.

3v3nt_hor1zon8 karma

Shooting lasers in space sounds a lot like something that could be interesting for military stuff - even though you mentioned a rather low energy, are you working (maybe against your will?) in collaboration with the US army?

cnespace18 karma

The army knows about the technique (which is called LIBS = Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy). It could be used to study explosives and other biologic agents at remote distances (few meters to 100 m) on Earth.
So the US army and other armies are aware of what we are doing… and they are working on it for their own applications. I would like to think that we are a step ahead of them!

adriansoft8 karma

how does a laser give you information? does it scan the item?

cnespace14 karma

The behavior of the laser is quite simple. When shooting on the rock, it excites atoms that emits light at certain wavelength. Chemcam spectrometers look to the plasma and send back on earth spectra.
Scientists analyze these spectra and can tell in few minutes what is the main composition of the shooted rock.
Valerie M.

_IslandsofViolence_7 karma

What's your guys favorite part about jobs and what got you guys into this profession?

cnespace13 karma

Discovering a new part of Mars every day is so great! So the best part is when data come down… I have always wanted to be a scientist; Mars is a place where discoveries are done! (Sylvestre)

Each night on Mars, when I write lines of code to shot lasers on Mars and when the next day I receive the same pictures of martian rocks with my laser shots, I feel like a pioneer digging in a new planet, and I am proud.(Eric)

Watching Mars every working day and helping scientist to find answers to their questions leads to very amazing moments in a life. Like Eric, i’m really proud to work on Mars (Valerie M.)

The curiosity of finding new features from a planet we’ve never been. Reading and understanding the history that Mars is trying to tell us. The will of discovering what Mars is hiding us! (Valérie P)

Who would not want to shoot with a laser on Mars?! And the images and landscapes are really fantastic. Coming from physics, on Mars I started to love geology (Susanne)

kalgan_7 karma

What’s the process to add a foreign instrument to a NASA spacecraft? Is there a call for proposals? Is it more/less formal?

cnespace18 karma

Nasa is issuing regularly “calls for opportunity” on its science missions. The selection is based on scientific and technical excellence.
When a foreign instrument is selected, NASA pays for its accommodation on the spacecraft, but not for its development, which is supported by the agency of the foreign contribution. This is a fair deal!!
Thus on MSL, the greatest rover we ever had on Mars, Spain, France, Canada, and Russia were invited to participate. On Rosetta (ESA mission) for instance, there was a US instrument to do UV spectroscopy of the comet. Collaboration in space works beautifully!

3v3nt_hor1zon3 karma

Is it possible for someone who's not involved at all in the mission to obtain 'observing time' with the rover (as astronomers sharing their telescopes with the entire community), or does the 'collaboration in space' only work for those who put money on the table...?

cnespace10 karma

Excellent question!
Yes and no. To be part of the observing team is a privilege, which is reserved to a few people, who have built instruments, or who have been selected for their scientific expertise (Participating Scientists).
So It is not open the community like a telescope. Again, scientific excellence is the rule. We have more than 350 scientists involved in science operations from several dozens of countries.
Now, data are public (images within seconds of their arrival on Earth, after 3 months for spectra) and everyone can look at them.

Ghost75306 karma

Do you think that the plan of Elon Musk of dropping nukes on Mars is a good plan for creating new Life and a new Eco-System?

cnespace19 karma

That plan is a stupid one. Terraforming Mars would not work and won’t be stable in a long run (this planet is definitively too small) Saving Earth should be the, and only one, goal for our long time survival.

Conchobair6 karma

Aren't you afraid they will fire back?

cnespace16 karma

We hope they will! That would be a sure sign for life ;)

Shynwei6 karma

What would happen if someone on your team made one mistake, leading to, I don't know, the waste of an entire day of analysis ? Did anyone already made a typing error or that kind of thing ? How is it handled ?

cnespace11 karma

It has happened before, no hardware damage. It is never a single person mistake, always a team a 3-4 people who missed internal checks or procedures weaknesses.
Operational procedures are being updated when errors occur, and software protections prevent us from damaging the hardware onboard. It’s a bummer when it happens, but humans do mistakes, so we try to reduce them as much as possible even though we can’t avoid all of them (especially when people are working until 3 or 4am).

Knight12ify4 karma

Yeah, how do you address rumors that your laser shot John Carter in the head and destroyed Barsoom and now you're trying to cover it all up? On a more serious note, I've heard about lasers determining the best locations for mines on Earth, is it possible that you could use your lasers to determine which areas on Mars would be the best to find the minerals that we need?

cnespace8 karma

This is not a rumor, this is true…
We use our laser to do chemistry on Mars. On the next NASA mission (Mars 2020) another laser, which will be green this time, will be used to vibrate the molecules (this is called the Raman effect) to get their mineral signature. So you are right, be patient!!

Kampala84 karma

When can we expect to have fully independent and operational human colonies on Mars?

Beg your pardon in case this was previously asked

cnespace17 karma

Who knows? A first visit, like an orbital mission, I would say by 2030. A landing, years (decade?) later. An independent colony?? can’t tell. Just remember that Mars is a very hostile planet. Men are born from Earth, adapted to it; everywhere else they are unfitted…
Sorry to be a bit negative, space is tough…

WinkleCream3 karma

Has an instrument like this been proposed for future Mars drilling missions that are trying to get 10-20m deep?

cnespace7 karma

We are not drilling with ChemCam. LIBS shots “drill” several microns. ChemCam goal is not drilling but analyzing chemical composition of rocks we are observing at the surface. MSL mission does have an instrument that drill up to 7cm, and ExoMars will have one drilling up to 2m!
Valérie P

chendubdub3 karma

Why is Mars so special comparing to the other planet? What will happen to Mars in 10 years time in your opinion? Any updates about sign of life thus far?

cnespace10 karma

Mars is special because it was once very similar to Earth with water on the surface, but something went wrong. We can learn from Mars about Earth. Because it has not plate tectonics we can look long time into the past.
The current mission is to investigate the past habitability of Mars but the future mission are equipped with instrument to detect traces of past or maybe even present life.

edibleben3 karma

Have there been any tertiary/unexpected discoveries through your research?

cnespace10 karma

We were not expected such a variability of magmatic rocks. The occurrence of a primary continental crust (with an alkaline composition) is now a strong hypothesis. This is one of the main unexpected discovery in this mission.

kalgan_3 karma

How do you command Curiosity to zap a specific rock? Do you designate it on a map? Is it with coordinates?

cnespace7 karma

When image data (stereo, to calculate distance and position) is already down after a drive, we can select interesting targets and put a specific raster on it that fit well the form of the target.
We do for instance lines with 10 positions in a row or squares with 3x3 positions. It works with some complex projections and calculations. We can target a sample the size of a penny in a distance of 7m.

3v3nt_hor1zon3 karma

is the wind an issue when aiming the laser?

cnespace11 karma

No there is no issue. Wind has no influence on laser beam. And on Mars, even if the wind can reach high speed (over 100km/h) its strength is very low due to the weak pressure of the atmosphere (1/100 of Earth pressure).
By the way “The martian” is a good movie but the strongest wind on Mars is not enough strong to move a rock. Sorry…

3v3nt_hor1zon5 karma

so the wind cannot shake the rover's head, nor move a bit a rock as compared to its position when the raster was designed?

cnespace6 karma

Nope ! Valérie P

[deleted]2 karma

Are you guys all weird and neurotic like those people on big bang theory? Or is that just a stereotype?

cnespace10 karma

We can be weird and neurotic, but we are not playing paint ball every week, we are not playing E-sport video games! But we are kind of geek!
PS: I don’t know someone like Sheldon!

kalgan_2 karma

ChemCam is on MSL Curiosity, but you’ll have instruments on InSight and Mars 2020 too. Is it, hum, more difficult to work with NASA since the InSight disaster?

cnespace4 karma

Not really, things are going well with both InSight and M2020. It has never been easy on either side to develop instruments for the martian environment. Others have failed before too. We have a long history of successful collaboration with NASA (not only on Martian projects), there’s no reason it will change in the future

IamDRock2 karma

Are there any plans on bringing spaghetti to the red planet anytime soon?

cnespace4 karma

Maybe in the next 10 years :-D Enjoy your meal!