Mars Rover Curiosity Preparing to Analyze Martian Dirt


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NASA researchers have begun preparing Mars rover Curiosity to scoop up Martian soil for testing. The rover was designed to be capable of placing soil into its analytical instruments, but these capabilities have not been tested since its arrival on the red planet.

"We now have reached an important phase that will get the first solid samples into the analytical instruments in about two weeks," said Michael Watkins, mission manager. "Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission."

Scientists and engineers with NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission will perform mineral analysis of Martian soil to reveal past environmental conditions on the planet, and conduct chemical analysis on the soil to check for ingredients necessary for life.

The coming preparations include testing Curiosity's scooping skills. After that, the rover will use a hammering drill to powder rocks for sampling. Today the rover took the first step to preparing for its first scoop, using one of its wheels to scuff the surface and expose the soil underneath. The NASA photo of the result can be seen above.

During the coming weeks, Curiosity will scoop up soil with its clamshell-shaped scoop, shake it inside its sample-processing chambers, then discard it. It will do this twice to scrub the internal surfaces of its chamber, making sure any residual material from Earth is removed. The third scoop it takes will be split up, with some of it placed in an observation tray and inspected using cameras mounted on its mast, while another portion will be placed into its chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument to determine its mineral composition. A fourth scoop will be placed in the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which will identify chemical composition.

"We're going to take a close look at the particle size distribution in the soil here to be sure it's what we want," said Daniel Limonadi, lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system. "We are being very careful with this first time using the scoop on Mars."

NASA has named the site of Curiosity's scooping tests 'Rocknest'. The sandy, dusty area is around 8 feet by 16 feet. Curiosity is currently on its way to an area named Glenelg, where researchers have spotted several converging types of interesting terrain.

(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)