NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has tasted Mars dirt for the first time, dropping a small sample of regolith into its onboard chemistry lab.
The sample — measuring no bigger than a crushed baby aspirin tablet and sieved to remove any large pieces of debris — was part of the third scoop of material collected from a sandy ridge of material near a location known as “Rock Nest,” a collection of dark rocks that the rover is currently parked next to.
Previous scoops of Mars material were used by Curiosity to “clean” its robotic arm-mounted scoop (an instrument called ‘Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis,’ or, simply, CHIMRA). By scooping the fine Mars soil, and then shaking it while inside CHIMRA, mission scientists could ensure that the metallic surfaces were scrubbed clean of any contaminants of Earth origin. The scoop then dumped the first two scoops — as you would spit out mouthwash after cleaning your teeth.
Now that the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument has the sample, it will begin analysis to identify the minerals contained within the regolith, ultimately helping scientist understand whether or not the Red planet ever could have supported habitats for basic forms of life.
“We are crossing a significant threshold for this mission by using CheMin on its first sample,” said Curiosity’s project scientist, John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “This instrument gives us a more definitive mineral-identifying method than ever before used on Mars: X-ray diffraction. Confidently identifying minerals is important because minerals record the environmental conditions under which they form.”
Interestingly, the analysis of regolith has been delayed by the sighting of curious pieces of bright material spotted on the ground during CHIMERA’s work.
The first object has been identified as likely a piece of plastic that fell off the rover. But during inspection of the troughs dug by the scoop, small flecks of a bright material have been spotted.
As there was concern these smaller unidentified pieces of material could also be contamination from the rover, mission scientists decided to delay dropping any samples into CheMin until it could be deciphered whether they are native to Mars, or perhaps more debris dropped from the rover. The consensus is that these bright flecks are indeed Martian.
“We plan to learn more both about the spacecraft material and about the smaller, bright particles,” said Curiosity Project Manager Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. “We will finish determining whether the spacecraft material warrants concern during future operations. The native Mars particles become fodder for the mission’s scientific studies.”
NASA’s one-ton, nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory landed inside Gale Crater onto a plain called Aeolis Palus on Aug. 5 and is currently roving its way to a 5.5 kilometer (3.4 mile) high mountain in the middle of the crater called Aeolis Mons (known colloquially as Mt. Sharp).
There’s nothing better than uncovering a mystery so early on in Curiosity’s planned 2-year long mission!
Image: Raw image from Curiosity’s MastCam of the CheMin hatch (closed) as seen on Curiosity’s deck on Sol 71 — a sample is now inside. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech