NASA's Curiosity rover, which touched down on the surface of Mars two weeks ago, has made the first use of its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, firing a laser at a rock and analyzing the results. According to a statement from NASA, the test — billed as "target practice" for future missions — involved hitting the rock with 30 brief laser pulses, each delivering more than a million watts of power. The barrage transformed the target area into a stream of molten plasma, as shown in the image below.
Changes in the composition of the plasma between each pulse could indicate that the laser managed to penetrate the surface of the rock, revealing details of the material at its core. This sort of chemical analysis will prove useful on Curiosity's upcoming mission to a spot known as Glenelg, which will allow scientists to study three different types of terrain, as well on the rover's four-week trek to the base of Mount Sharp, a more complex and dangerous journey.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Curiosity's official Twitter account took a characteristically irreverent attitude towards the milestone:
Yes, I've got a laser beam attached to my head. I'm not ill tempered; I zapped a rock for science: 1.usa.gov/P7IXF1— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 19, 2012