(A) Curiosity will trundle around its landing site looking for interesting rock features to study. Its top speed is about 4cm/s
(B) This mission has 17 cameras. They will identify particular targets, and a laser will zap those rocks to probe their chemistry
(C) If the signal is significant, Curiosity will swing over instruments on its arm for close-up investigation. These include a microscope
(D) Samples drilled from rock, or scooped from the soil, can be delivered to two hi-tech analysis labs inside the rover body
(E) The results are sent to Earth through antennas on the rover deck. Return commands tell the rover where it should drive next

 

The robot fired its ChemCam laser at a tennis-ball-sized stone lying about 2.5m away on the ground.

The brief but powerful burst of light from the instrument vapourised the surface of the rock, revealing details of its basic chemistry.

This was just target practice for ChemCam, proving it is ready to begin the serious business of investigating the geology of the Red Planet.

It is part of a suite of instruments on the one-tonne robot, which landed two weeks ago in a deep equatorial depression known as Gale Crater.

Over the course of one Martian year, Curiosity will try to determine whether past environments at its touchdown location could ever have supported life.

The US-French ChemCam instrument will be a critical part of that investigation, helping to select the most interesting objects for study.

The inaugural target of the laser was a 7cm-wide rock dubbed "Coronation" (previously N165).

It had no particular science value, and was expected to be just another lump of ubiquitous Martian basalt, a volcanic rock.

Its appeal was the nice smooth face it offered to the laser.

ChemCam zapped it with 30 pulses of infrared light during a 10-second period.

Each pulse delivered to a tiny spot more than a million watts of power for about five billionths of a second.

The instrument observed the resulting spark through a telescope; the component colours would have told scientists which atomic elements were present.