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NASA pimps out Mars 2020 Rover with rock-zapping laser

The SuperCam will help analyze Martian rocks and soil in the search for past life.

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Engineers install the SuperCam instrument on the Mars 2020 rover in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Not only did the Mars 2020 Rover recently score a set of wheels and legs, it now sports a super instrument the geniuses at NASA will use to search for evidence of past life on Mars. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, fitted the new rover, which is also yet to receive its official name, with the SuperCam Mast Unit early last week, NASA confirmed Tuesday.

What does the SuperCam do? It's the next-generation version of the ChemCam instrument installed on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, which is currently going about making its own discoveries on the Red Planet. According to NASA, the instrument's camera, laser and spectrometers "can identify the chemical and mineral makeup of targets as small as a pencil point from a distance of more than 20 feet (6 meters)."

NASA intends to put the SuperCam to good use examining Martian rocks and soil, in particular to seek out organic compounds that could be related to past life on Mars.

A joint effort between the US, France and Spain, the instrument has come a long way since inception.

"SuperCam has come a long way from being a bold and ambitious idea to an actual instrument," said Sylvestre Maurice, the SuperCam deputy principal investigator at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie in Toulouse, France. "While it still has a long way to go -- all the way to Mars -- this is a great day for not only SuperCam but the amazing consortium that put it together."

NASA plans to launch the Mars 2020 Rover in, you guessed it, 2020. Its intended landing point, after a year of space travel, is at the Red Planet's Jezero Crater.