Why NASA's Curiosity rover is shooting at Mars rocks with lasers

We can all agree that NASA's Curiosity Rover is pretty cool, right? It's a car-sized robotic vehicle that parachuted onto the surface of Mars and is now the most sophisticated piece of manmade exploration gear on the Red Planet. It's even got a laser gun to shoot at rocks. But why?

Over the weekend Curiosity fired 30 powerful pulses of a laser at a fist-sized rock called "Coronation" as a test of the rover's "ChemCam," an instrument that will eventually be used to determine the chemical composition of rocks on the Martian surface.

ChemCam works by targeting a rock and blasting it with several million-watt laser pulses until it's melted "into an ionized, glowing plasma." Then a telescope is turned on the light generated by the glowing plasma, and three spectrometers onboard the rover analyze it. That's right. We've got a robot car on Mars that can melt rocks with lasers.

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation -- lots of signal," said Roger Wiens, ChemCam principal investigator. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!"

As Curiosity continues its mission over the next two years it has the potential to hit thousands more rocks in an effort to better understand Mars' geological makeup. In the meantime, NASA's just happy the ChemCam works.

(Via Huffington Post)

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