April 28, 2014

Curiosity Inspects Possible Sandstone Drilling Site Over The Weekend

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Curiosity spent this weekend using several of its instruments to inspect a sandstone slab that could become the third drilled rock of the Mars rover’s mission, and the first to consist of something other than mudstone.

However, the rock, which NASA scientists have dubbed Windjana in honor of a gorge in Western Australia, must first meet a series of criteria established by the mission’s engineers, the US space agency said in a statement Friday.

As part of that inspection, NASA said that Curiosity would be using the camera and the X-ray spectrometer at the end of its arm, as well as a brush to remove dust from a small portion of the slab. In addition, the rover was analyzing the rock’s composition at various points using a device that fires laser shots from its mast.

“Curiosity's hammering drill collects powdered sample material from the interior of a rock, and then the rover prepares and delivers portions of the sample to onboard laboratory instruments,” NASA explained. The first two rocks that were drilled and studied by Curiosity using this process were located beside each other in a region known as Yellowknife Bay, which is located approximately 2.5 miles from its current location.

Each of those rocks contained evidence of an ancient lakebed environment that contained chemical elements and energy sources that suggested that the conditions were favorable for life on Mars several billions of years ago. By drilling at Windjana or a different, nearby location also made out of sandstone, Curiosity scientists are hoping to conduct an analysis of the cement that binds the sand-size grains of the rock together.

“We want to learn more about the wet process that turned sand deposits into sandstone here,” explained Curiosity Project Scientist and Caltech geology professor John Grotzinger. “What was the composition of the fluids that bound the grains together? That aqueous chemistry is part of the habitability story we're investigating."

Determining why some types of sandstone in this area are harder than others could help explain differences in the shapes of the landscape inside Gale Crater, which is the part of Mars where Curiosity is currently operating. For instance, why the sandstone that caps mesas and buttes resist erosion, and why there is a large layered mountain (Mount Sharp) located at the center of the crater.

[ Watch the Video: The Strange Attraction of Gale Crater ]

It is part of the rover’s ongoing mission to analyze potentially habitable ancient environments and changes to the environmental condition of the Red Planet. The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft landed in Gale Crater on August 6, 2012, and Curiosity successfully met its primary objective of finding evidence of conditions suited for microbial life just eight months into a planned 23 month mission, according to NASA.

[ Watch the Video: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror ]