NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover is now all set to dig the Martian soil for the first time to sample the Red Planet.
The space agency announced Thursday that Curiosity is now in a position on Mars where scientists and engineers can begin preparing the rover to take its first scoop of soil for analysis.
"We now have reached an important phase that will get the first solid samples into the analytical instruments in about two weeks," said Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission."
[NASA's Mars rover Curiosity cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site to give researchers a better opportunity to examine the particle-size distribution of the material forming the ripple. The rover's right Navigation camera took this image of the scuff mark on the mission's 57th Martian day, or sol (Oct. 3, 2012), the same sol that a wheel created the mark. For scale, the width of the wheel track is about 16 inches (40 centimeters). Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech]
According to scientists, Curiosity’s ability to put soil samples into analytical instruments is central to assessing whether its present location on Mars, called Gale Crater, ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.
While mineral analysis can reveal past environmental conditions on the planet, chemical analysis can check for ingredients necessary for life, said scientists.
The elementary operations by the rover will include testing its robotic scooping capabilities to collect and process soil samples. Later on, it will also use a hammering drill to collect powdered samples from rocks. To begin preparations for a first scoop, the rover used one of its wheels Wednesday to scuff the soil to expose fresh material.
As the next step, Curiosity will scoop up some soil, shake it inside the sample-processing chambers to scrub the internal surfaces and then discard the sample. After that, it will again scoop and shake a third measure of soil and place it in an observation tray for inspection by cameras mounted on the rover's mast.
A portion of the third sample will be delivered to the mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover. From a fourth scoopful, samples will be delivered to both CheMin and to the sample analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which identifies chemical ingredients.
"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 of JPL, 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."
"We want to be sure the first sample we analyze is unambiguously Martian, so we take these steps to remove any residual material from Earth that might be on the walls of our sample handling system,” said JPL's Joel Hurowitz, a sampling system scientist on the Curiosity team.
The name of the area of soil that Curiosity will test and analyze is “Rocknest,” a patch which is about 8 feet by 16 feet (2.5 meters by 5 meters). There is plenty of area for scooping several times.
After the work at Rocknest, which may take two to three weeks to be accomplished, the rover team plans to drive Curiosity about 100 yards (about 100 meters) eastward into the Glenelg area and select a rock as the first target for use of its drill.