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Why Mars rover will be blasting its heat ray as it searches for life

The Mars rover Curiosity, which is due on the Red Planet next week, is outfitted with an infrared laser and telescope package called ChemCam that will vaporize bits of rock to study its chemical makeup.

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This 2010 file photo shows engineers working on the Mars rover Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. After traveling eight and a half months and 352 million miles, Curiosity will attempt a landing on Mars the night of Aug. 5.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File

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In less than a week, a machine from another planet will arrive on an alien world, soon to start zeroing in on targets and zapping them with its heat ray.

War of the Worlds? Not quite.

It's the Mars rover Curiosity, the robotic star of NASA's $2.5-billion Mars Science Laboratory mission. Any zapping serves to answer a question that has captured the imagination of generations of scientists and the public: Has Mars ever hosted life?

IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars

Curiosity is slated to arrive on Mars early in the morning Eastern time on Aug. 6. If the landing goes well, Curiosity will explore the red planet's Gale Crater and its imposing Mt. Sharp. Both show tantalizing geological evidence that the dent in Mars' surface once might have sported environments capable of supporting at least simple forms of life.

The story is written in the chemical make-up of the rocks Curiosity examines. And a first cut at determining which rocks to drive to for analyzing in detail will be made from information gathered by ChemCam, an infrared laser and telescope package that sits atop Curiosity's extendable "neck."

The device, one of 10 science instruments on the rover, also will be hunting for water, either bound up in minerals or as ices in the soil Curiosity traverses. Researchers have identified water as a key requirement for the emergence and survival of life as they've come to know it on Earth.

ChemCam's approach, using a laser and mini telescope to identify atoms present in a distant object, already has found wide use on Earth in situations that would be dangerous for humans, says Darby Dyar, an astronomer at Mt. Holyoke College in Hadley, Mass., and a member of the ChemCam team.

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