Mars rover Curiosity prepares to make first scoop of planet’s soil

October 6, 2012

View Photo Gallery: NASA’s Curiosity rover readies itself to examine the Martian sand.

The Mars rover Curiosity is preparing to make its first scoop of the planet’s soil. The sampling may take place as early as Sunday.

On Oct. 3, the rover was maneuvered so that a wheel scuffed a wind-formed ripple of sand at the Rocknest site, and the next day (Sol 58) the rover maneuvered its arm for a close-up look at the freshly exposed material. Analysis was conducted using Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), according to an Oct. 5 release.

If the first scoop of the Martian soil goes well, an announcement of the results are planned for Monday, according to a NASA spokesperson. Details relating to the first scoop were outlined during an Oct. 4 press conference at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

The rover reached Rocknest after driving roughly 484 meters from the Bradbury landing site. The Rocknest site was deemed a good “sandbox,” as Michael Watkins, the Curiosity Mission Manager put it, in which to use the rover’s scoop for the first time.

Come for the sand, stay for the science. See my new spot & the sampling activity I’ve got in store [video] bit.ly/SPku7Z

— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) October 5, 2012

The first two scoops will be taken and the sample vibrated rapidly to clean out the rover’s highly sensitive scooping and processing device, known as CHIMRA , or “collection and handling for in-situ Martian rock analysis.” Daniel Limonadi, lead systems engineer for the rover’s surface sampling and science system compared the process to sand-blasting the walls and floor of a room. The cleaning process is meant to remove an oily film inside the instrument that is impossible to remove while on Earth. The scoop is roughly 1.8 inches wide and about 2.8 inches long. Limonadi compared it to “an oversized tablespoon.”

Some material from the third scoop will be shaken and placed in an observation tray to be inspected by cameras on the rover’s mast. Part of that third sample will be delivered to the “chemistry and mineralogy” (CheMin) instrument, which identifies minerals in the soil. The fourth scoop will be delivered to both the CheMin and “sample analysis at Mars”(SAM) instruments, which will analyze its chemical composition.

The entire process, ending with the delivery of samples to the CheMin and SAM instruments, is expected to take as long as three weeks. The timeline is not fixed, however, given the potential for changes to the meticulously-planned process.

In addition to scooping the soil, the rover will eventually use its hammering drill to acquire dust samples from rocks, involving a separate cleaning process beforehand. The drilling activity is expected to take place after the team drives the rover roughly 100 yards to an area known as Glenelg, according to an Oct. 4 release.

The process of testing the soil, however, is one of the most critical aspects of the Curiosity mission, the goal of which is to see if the building blocks of life are or were ever present on Mars.

From chemist to explorer to mayor, I am one busy bot. Just became the mayor of Mars’ Gale Crater on @foursquare 4sq.com/QLh1uc

— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) October 5, 2012

But it’s not all work and no play for the Curiosity team. On Friday, Curiosity announced that it has become the mayor of Mars, as far as Foursquare is concerned, anyway.

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