NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity zapped its first rock with a laser beam on Sunday, successfully completing a test of a key instrument needed to search for life-friendly habitats.
The rover's Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, blasted a flat, fist-sized rock with a high-powered laser 30 times in 10 seconds, creating plasma sparks that were analyzed by three light-splitting spectrometers to determine their chemical contents.
"Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results," Los Alamos National Laboratory's Roger Wiens, ChemCam lead scientist, said in a statement.
The rock, dubbed "Coronation," primarily served as target practice, though scientists are interested in whether and how its composition changed between laser pulses, each of which lasted about five one-billionths of a second.
Changes could mean dust or other surface materials were blasted away, leaving a different composition exposed.
ChemCam deputy project scientist Sylvestre Maurice, with the Research Institute for Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, France, said the instrument worked even better than expected.