NASA Selects First Destination For Mars Lab Curiosity

Watch the Video: ChemCam Field of View

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

Curiosity’s first destination will be a natural intersection of three types of terrain known as Glenelg, located some 1,300 feet (400 meters) east southeast of its landing site, NASA officials have announced.

One of the terrain types at Glenelg, which was chosen by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Principal Investigator John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, is layered bedrock, which will be the first drilling target for the one-ton, six-wheeled, $2.6 billion rover, the US space agency explained during a media teleconference on Friday.

“With such a great landing spot in Gale Crater, we literally had every degree of the compass to choose from for our first drive. We had a bunch of strong contenders. It is the kind of dilemma planetary scientists dream of, but you can only go one place for the first drilling for a rock sample on Mars,” Grotzinger said. “That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration.”

Part of what makes Curiosity’s landing location so attractive is that it is the bottom of an alluvial fan — a pattern of sedimentary rocks, dirt and sand that had been deposited by an ancient source of flowing water (likely a river). A NASA official has pointed out, since water is a requirement to sustain life as we understand it, the presence of an alluvial fan makes this a prime starting point in the search for evidence that Mars could once harbor life.

Prior to the rover’s departure, the team overseeing its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument was set to make sure that the mast-mounted laser and telescope unit was fully operational. On Friday, NASA announced that the first 10 photos had been received from ChemCam’s remote micro imager, and the first test bursts of the laser and the first spectral reading were on pace to be completed sometime over the weekend.

“The successful delivery of these photos means we can begin efforts in earnest for the first images of Mars rocks by the ChemCam instrument and the first use of the instrument´s laser,” Roger Wiens, Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team and a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in a statement. “We anticipate these next steps over the weekend.”

He added that the first target, identified as Rock N-165, “looks like your typical Mars rock, about three inches (seven centimeters) wide and it’s about 10 feet away. We are going to hit it with 14 milliJoules of energy 30 times in 10 seconds. It is not only going to be an excellent test of our system, but it should be pretty cool too.”

ChemCam is one of 10 different instruments that Curiosity will use to study the history of Mars over the course of the next 98 weeks (equivalent to one Martian year). The laser fires a powerful pulse that NASA says can vaporize a small target up to 23 feet away, and the unit’s 4.3-inch aperture telescope captures the flash from the glowing plasma. The light is then sent to a spectrometer in the MSL’s chassis, where the colors from it are recorded so that scientists can determine what elements comprised the material originally targeted by the laser.

This weekend’s activities are the start of something amazing, according to NASA scientists.

“There will be a lot of important firsts that will be taking place for Curiosity over the next few weeks, but the first motion of its wheels, the first time our roving laboratory on Mars does some actual roving, that will be something special,” Michael Watkins, mission manager for Curiosity from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said.

“In the coming months and years, Curiosity will tell us an incredible story,” added Grotzinger.