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The tides of Venus

Curiosity gets to know its neighbours

The innocent victim, N165, now known as ‘Coronation’ rock. NASA/JPL

There’s a rock on the surface of Mars that now has a very strange life story. N165’s life started out normally enough. Like the basalt rocks on Earth it would have erupted molten, and solidified when exposed to the cold atmosphere of Mars.

There it has sat, probably for a few billion years, only being bothered by a violent dust storm every few decades – each time shaving off a small piece. Until the present day, where N165 finds itself only about 8cm in size, slowly crumbling into its surroundings.

N165’s neighbourhood, until things changed on the 6th August. NASA/JPL

N165 wouldn’t have had very much warning of its impending difficulties. The atmosphere on Mars is very thin – sound cannot travel all that far. The first clue our plucky rock would have had of something being amiss was when the ground shook and a car-sized alien object, otherwise known a NASA’s Curiostiy rover, thumped down next to it in a cloud of dust.

Once the dust had settled, N165 got a better look at its new neighbour. Sat about one and a half metres away, it seemed passive enough. For the next few Sols Curiosity sat on the surface, giving the odd quiet whirl and click.

Could you out-stare this robot? Bear in mind, he has a laser! NASA/JPL

But then a great head sprung out from the body (I’m sure everything is quick relative to a rock), and N165 started to get a feeling that something was up. After a Sol or so there was no getting away from it, Curiosity was looking straight at it.

After trying to politely to ignore it, N165 thought that enough was enough and locked itself into a staring competition. Not blinking they sat there, the alien creature and the plucky Martian rock staring each other out. Then, in a spectacular cheating move, the alien creature zapped poor N165 with a 10,000 Watt laser.

The damage to N165. NASA/JPL

Reeling from this new development N165 really wanted to hide, run away or even try and fight back. Little did the rock realise that on Earth it had some new-found fame, and a grand title of ‘Coronation’ rock. By hitting the rock with that 10 second pulse of power a piece of it was vaporised, allowing us to detect the chemical make up of N165.

All this was not in the pursit of rock-torture, but a vital test of Curiostity’s ChemCam instrument. Coronation rock wasn’t picked for its uniqueness, but because it was a nearby object and identified to be a “typical” Mars basalt. So successful was ChemCam, it picked up traces of the scant Martian atmosphere while performing the test.

Just when N165 thought it was safe again, the robot unfurled this monstrosity. NASA/JPL

I’m sure N165 got nervous again when Curiosity’s robotic arm unfolded itself. This can extend over 2 meters and is armed with the percussive drill, able to do a lot of rock bothering. But Coronation rock can now breath again, with yesterday’s test drive Curiosity will soon be on its way. More science to be done, and rocks to terrorise….

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