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NASA's high energy laser is going to be mounted on the next Mars rover. Its Pew Pew Ness is going to vaporize things with a laser to find out what they are made of.

The laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy system (LIBS), called ChemCam, will launch next year. It sends an average of three 10-watt, five-nanosecond laser pulses per second and is perfect for collecting and analyzing rock samples:

The laser shots vaporize a crater less than a millimeter across, turning its molecules into a 14,000-degree plasma. The atoms are shorn of their electrons, but as the plasma ball cools down, they return to a more normal state. The electrons drop into their orbits around the nucleus and as they do so, the little plasma ball emits light...

The specific color of the light tells scientists exactly what element they are looking at if they pass it through a spectrometer, which can precisely measure the wavelength of light.

[Wired]