Researchers in the University of New Mexico's Earth and Planetary Sciences Department must now sit and wait. They're waiting for the Atlas V rocket that carries the Mars Science Laboratory and an instrument called ChemCam, to land on Gale Crater on the surface of the planet Mars.

Also on that rocket is the next Mars rover, Curiosity, which is the most sophisticated Rover ever built by NASA. The $2.5 billion NASA rover launched Friday, Nov. 25 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and is scheduled to land in an area known as Gale Crater in August 2012.

For UNM Co-investigators, Penny King and Horton Newsom, there's plenty of interest in this mission and subsequent research. Several new tools will give researchers the ability to better determine and discover the differences among geologic composition with greater accuracy than previous Rovers.

The instruments will be able to tell if hydrogen and oxygen, the components in water, are in the rocks. Assuming all goes well on the 354-million mile journey, it'll be approximately nine months before researchers can play with the scientific toys on Curiosity.

Newsom, a senior researcher at UNM's Institute of Meteoritics, is one of the co-investigators leading a faculty-student team and collaborating on the ChemCam laser which has New Mexico written all over it with the involvement of researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of New Mexico.

The laser, which can vaporize rock at a distance of 20 paces, can evaluate the remains and assess whether or not there are any signs of life in the form of water. It can also study the geologic chemistry of nearby, surrounding areas to help researchers determine what direction to send the rover.

King, a senior research scientist also at UNM's Institute of Meteoritics, studies the origin and evolution of planetary interiors and surfaces. King's specialty on the mission is the operation of the Alpha-Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, which will analyze and test rocks to determine their composition once they are loaded onto the Rover.

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