WASHINGTON — NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover is parked at a sand pit and ready to scoop up soil to clean and test its geological sampling hardware, the US space agency said Thursday.
These will be the first solid samples put through Curiosity’s high-tech collection and processing tool set — a task central to realizing the mission’s goal of determining whether Mars ever harbored life, NASA officials said.
Project team members said they were excited to get started, but planned to proceed with caution.
“Because this is such an important capability, kind of the keystone of the rover mission, we’re being deliberately, incredibly careful,” said Daniel Limonadi, lead systems engineer, on a conference call with reporters.
“We’re taking a lot of extra steps to make sure we know what’s going on,” added mission manager Michael Watkins.
Step one, they explained, will be to use sand to scrape off the earth-born film that would taint any future testing.
“On Earth, even though we make this hardware super, squeaky clean when it’s assembled and worked on, by virtue of just being on Earth, you get an oily film that is impossible to avoid,” Limonadi said.
To get rid of it, Curiosity will take some sand and vibrate it vigorously across all the instrument over several hours, “to effectively sand blast those surfaces.”
The process will be repeated three times over the next 10 days, with stops between to verify everything is going well.
Before grabbing that first scoop, tentatively scheduled for Saturday, scientists have analyzed images of the sand.
Once the cleaning is done, Curiosity will scoop up its first sample for geological analysis.
Once Curiosity is done with the work at its current location, dubbed “Rocknest,” it will then travel some 328 feet (100 meters) towards its next destination, an spot named “Glenelg.”
At that spot, located at an intersection of three types of terrain, NASA experts plan to drill a rock and analyze the content.
Curiosity is on a two-year mission to investigate whether it is possible to live on Mars and to learn whether conditions there might have been able to support life in the past.
The $2.5 billion craft landed in Gale Crater on August 6, opening a new chapter in the history of interplanetary exploration.