Rover tests martian soil
Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013 13:05
WASHINGTON - NASA’s Curiosity rover proves the third time’s the charm after successfully collecting and ingesting a Mars soil sample Oct. 16 for mineral composition analysis.
The rover’s chemistry and mineralogy instrument, otherwise known as CheMin, will X-ray the sample to determine what, if any, microbes it contains.
NASA dumped the second soil scoop when FOD, or foreign object debris, caught the scientists’ eyes.
John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said the first two scoops were discarded because the scientists worried that unnatural shiny objects in the scoop areas would skew the soil results.
“After we dumped scoop two, we then did a very extensive review,” Grotzinger said. “We went super paranoid.”
Curiosity cleaned out its sampling system before swallowing the new soil.
Curiosity will remain at “the promiseland” of Rocknest until it has finished analyzing the soil sample. Scientists said results should be available by the end of next week.
Richard Cook, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the team still doesn’t know what the bright specks are. He said the team has seen more than just one FOD in images collected over the last week at Rocknest.
At first, the team thought the material was plastic debris from Curiosity, but now they aren’t so sure.
“We don’t know whether or not they’re plastic or they’re something else, nor do we understand the source of them,” Cook said.
The team played it safe and decided a third scoop was necessary to ensure that Curiosity didn’t ingest manmade materials.
Grotzinger said scientists agreed that the pale specks are not just on the surface of the soil, which indicates that the material is probably indigenous to Mars.
“If it’s foreign, and it has fallen off of the spacecraft, it will only be on the surface, it won’t be under the surface,” Grotzinger said. “We feel very confident that there is no foreign object debris that went into CheMin, and that if there are little white flecks of some type that went into CheMin, they’re going to be part of the analysis of natural materials because they were in the subsurface and not on the surface.”
Curiosity has been on the red planet for more than 70 days and this is its first soil collection. Grotzinger said the Mars Science Laboratory team is excited about the progress the rover is making and are relieved that there haven’t been any serious issues.
“We’re excited about it because we look at the images and we see things that promise a lot of excitement in terms of understanding the environmental history of Mars and maybe giving us further clues into the habitability search,” Grotzinger said. “These are questions that have been around forever. … Now, once and for all, we really hope to address what’s in the soil of Mars mineralogically — what’s actually in there.”
The rover’s sights are now set on the Glenelg area where Curiosity’s images suggest a promising drilling location.
“When it comes to drilling, it’s probably going to be about a month,” Grotzinger said. “I would hope we’d be on our way by the end of the year.”
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Tanya Parker is a senior broadcast journalism and Spanish major at E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She is currently interning at Scripps Howard Foundation’s Semester in Washington program. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.