Mars Rover Ready To Get Its Hand Dirty
October 4, 2012

Well-behaved Curiosity Ready To Scoop Its First Soil Samples

[ Watch the Video: Test Scooping for Mars Rover Curiosity ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

NASA announced today that its Curiosity rover is at a place on the Red Planet where it can scoop up its first soil for analysis.

The rover is gearing up to show off its ability to put soil samples into analytical instruments, which is a crucial part of its mission to search for whether Mars has ever had conditions favorable for life.

A mineral analysis could reveal past environmental conditions, and a chemical analysis can check for ingredients necessary for life.

"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 in Pasadena, California. "Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission."

Curiosity will begin testing its robotic scooping abilities to collect and process soil samples, according to NASA. Afterwards, it will begin using a hammering drill to collect powdered samples from rocks.

In order to begin preparations for its first scoop, the rover used one of its wheels on Wednesday to expose some fresh material.

NASA said during the scoop, the rover will grab up some soil, shake it thoroughly inside the sample-processing chambers to scrub the internal surfaces, then discard the sample.

The rover will 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.

Curiosity will then take a portion of the third sample and divvy it out to its mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside it. With its fourth scoop, samples will be given to both CheMin and its 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."

Joel Hurowitz, a sampling system scientist on the Curiosity team, said that it is standard to run a split of your sample through first and dump it out in order to clean out any residue from a previous sample.

"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," Hurowitz said.

Currently, Curiosity is sitting at an area named Rocknest, which it arrived at on October 2. This patch is about 8 feet by 16 feet, according to NASA.

Rocks around the area will provide targets for investigation with the instruments aboard Curiosity's mast during the weeks the rover is stationed at Rocknest.

After it is finished at the site, Curiosity will drive about 100 yards eastward into the Glenelg area and select a rock as the first target for its drill.