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Posted at 09:14 AM ET, 08/20/2012

Mars Curiosity rover fires laser for first time

This composite image, with magnified insets, depicts the first laser test by the Chemistry and Camera, or ChemCam, instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on Mars in this Nasa handout photo. The composite incorporates a Navigation Camera image taken prior to the test, with insets taken by the camera in ChemCam. (HANDOUT - REUTERS)

The Mars Curiosity rover has done one of the most anticipated actions of its two year-mission to the Red Planet: It fired its laser for the first time.

The first image sent back from the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) shows a circular inset of roughly 2.4 inches, which is the rock before being “interrogated” by the laser, as per the NASA press release Sunday, and the smaller, square inset, about one-third of an inch, shows the rock after the laser was fired. The test, according to the release, took place Sunday.

This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. (Artistic conception of the rover at work on Mars. | NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The rock in question even has a name: Coronation, which is fitting for the first rock on any planet other than Earth to undergo the laser test. The investigation of Coronation took place on the rover’s 13th day on the planet.

“Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it’s payoff time!” said ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, via a release.

The initial use of the laser was primarily for target practice, but it appears to be yielding more data than expected. 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. If the composition of the rock changed during the test then it could show that dust and other surface materials have been penetrated, and reveal a different composition. Researchers are in the process of checking to see if this is, indeed, the case.

The ChemCam uses a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, a technique used in nuclear reactors, on the sea floor and even cancer detection. But this marks the first time the technique has been used in interplanetary exploration, according to NASA.

Curiosity, the largest rover ever sent to Mars, is also equipped with an on-board oven to further investigate whether any of the building blocks for life exist on Mars.

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By  |  09:14 AM ET, 08/20/2012

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