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Why does NASA's Mars rover have a laser beam attached to its head? (+video)

The Curiosity Mars rover, scheduled to land on Mars on Sunday night, comes with a laser mounted to its head. Why?

Team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity Mars rover's final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars.
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When NASA’s newest rover arrives on Mars Sunday night (Aug. 5), it will be carrying a host of state-of-the-art instruments, including the head-mounted, rock-zapping laser called ChemCam.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover aims to determine if its landing site, the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater, can or ever could support microbial life. ChemCam will play a vital role in this quest by allowing the rolling robot to study the composition of rocks from afar.

Mounted to Curiosity’s "head" just above its camera "eyes," ChemCam combines a powerful laser with a telescope and spectrometer that can analyze the light emitted by zapped materials, thereby determining the chemistry of Mars rocks with unprecedented precision.

Using technology created at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, ChemCam will focus a beam of infrared light onto a target from its French-built laser, vaporizing it with over a million watts of energy from up to 23 feet (7 meters) away. [Curiosity Armed with Laser, Cameras (Infographic)]

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