Mars Rover Curiosity Has First Target in Sight

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NASA’s newly commissioned Mars rover Curiosity is expected to reach its first science target on Friday, a pyramid-shaped rock that will be used to assess how well two of the rover’s 10 science instruments complement each others’ measurements.

The rock, named for chief systems engineer Jake Matijevic, who died shortly after the rover’s landing, is about 10 inches tall and 16 inches wide at its base.

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Curiosity is expected to reach the rock on Friday, though some delicate maneuvering may be needed to properly position the rover’s arm so it can reach the rock’s surface, managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters during a conference call Wednesday.

Scientists want to use two instruments that can analyze the rock’s chemical contents. The Chemical Camera, or ChemCam, acquires data at a very small scale of resolution — less than 1 millimeter — whereas the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer integrates data over 1.5 centimeters in diameter.

“Both of those instruments could make a measurement and there could be differences because one is measuring at a small scale and one is measuring at a larger scale,” said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger.

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“The hope is that we can analyze this rock and then do a cross-comparison between the two instruments — not to mention that it’s just a cool looking rock, sitting out there on the plains with almost pyramidal geometry, so that’s kind of fun as well,” Grotzinger said.

Curiosity, which landed inside a 96-mile-wide impact basin known as Gale Crater on Aug. 6, is enroute to a patch of terrain where three different kinds of rock intersect.

The science team is making several stops to practice using Curiosity’s instruments.

The point of the two-year mission is to assess whether the landing site has or ever had the chemical and environmental conditions needed for microbial life.

Image: Top: Tally-ho on rock Jake Matijevic, which will serve as a practice run for two of Curiosity’s science instruments. Right: Overview from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Oribter showing where Curiosity has traveled so far. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

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