Never mind the heat shield, the parachute, the thruster-guided landing, all of that. Curiosity went to Mars to carry out experiments using Big Science Gear and now it is confirmed that at least one set of gear works!
The method is laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, in which very high power but short burst laser light is focused on a thing, and the matter the thing is made up of is drastically altered in such a way that it gives of a signal that can be picked up by instruments also pointed at the thing, to produce a spectrosopic signature.
There is no useful analysis of the data yet, but NASA scientists seem to think the laser blasting and analysis of the rock, known as Coronation (yeah, they name the rocks) by the ChemCam devise worked better than expected. This first effort was a combined test and calibration. Stay tuned for science.
I don't get it. Why is this new? Even PathFinder had a spectrometer with it. Is there a difference between them?
There are two things going on here. First, this instrument is newer and fancier and gives finer results (the spectrum is cut up in to smaller slices) and access to otherwise not as accessible materials (it literally ablates off surfaces to get underneath them). Other Mars craft have had spectrometers, but this is different. Second, it worked; when they turned the thing on and tried it out it was not broken. That's important!
@Vitor: This is first _active_ spectroscopy system on any planetary science mission. All of the others (including the Sojourner rover from the Pathfinder mission) were/are passive spectrometers, which analyzed reflected light, or other radiation emitted by the "target."
The ChemCam LIBS system uses a 5 mJ (1 MW power output, 5 ns pulse) infrared laser to produce a small plasma vapor at the target, which is then imaged and analyzed by a 6144-line resolution spectrometer.
If that thing is still active in fifteen years can we use it to blast holes in the first manned habitats? They'll be some damnable furreners...