NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is currently at “the Kimberley,” a rock outcrop that features some interesting drilling targets, in particular Martian sandstones. Over the weekend, Curiosity spent time analyzing a particular sandstone slab, named “Windjana,” to determine if it is a potential drilling candidate.
According to NASA, Curiosity will use its onboard cameras, laser and X-ray spectrometer to determine the sandstone’s composition. If the sandstone passes Curiosity’s initial inspection, it will become the third Martian rock drilled by Curiosity. The rover previously drilled into two mudstone rocks in Yellowknife Bay in 2013, a move which led to evidence of an ancient Martian lakebed that could have supported life.
Curiosity’s engineers and scientists hope the potential sandstone target will yield a similar scientific bounty as the rocks could provide new insights into Mars’ ancient environment. According to Michael Malin, principal investigator for the Mast Camera and the Mars Descent Camera on Curiosity, some sandstones are more resistant to erosion than others and the composition of these rocks could help identify ancient environmental conditions.
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— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) April 25, 2014
John Grotzinger, a Curiosity project scientist from the California Institute of Technology, said in a statement, “We want to learn more about the wet process that turned sand deposits into sandstone here. What was the composition of the fluids that bound the grains together? That aqueous chemistry is part of the habitability story we're investigating.” For the researchers, analyzing the "cement," material that fills the space between the grains of sand in the rock, can determine if the rock developed in wet conditions.
If the sandstone meets the criteria of Curiosity scientists and engineers, the rover will use its onboard drill to collect samples of the sandstone’s interior and its scientific instruments, such as the sample analysis at Mars, to analyze the rock.
On Saturday, raw images from Curiosity’s right Navcam show the rover at work analyzing Windjana, named after Windjana Gorge which is located in the Kimberley region of western Australia.