NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover took its first soil sample last week. The unmanned explorer used its robotic arm to scoop up a bit of the Martian surface, which it then sieved. A baby-Aspirin sized portion was subsequently deposited into its internal laboratory for analysis by the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, to determine what minerals it contains.
"We are crossing a significant threshold for this mission by using CheMin on its first sample," said Curiosity's project scientist, John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "This instrument gives us a more definitive mineral-identifying method than ever before used on Mars: X-ray diffraction. Confidently identifying minerals is important because minerals record the environmental conditions under which they form."
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Bright particle seen in soil sample area later determined to be natural (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
This was the third sample scooped up by Curiosity, but the first to be analyzed. The first was used to scrub out the inside of the 4x4-sized rover’s laboratories to remove any terrestrial contaminants, and the second was discarded when bright particles were seen in it.
Fearing that the presence of these particles might be a repeat of an earlier encounter with plastic debris from Curiosity’s landing, mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California decided to investigate further. When images of the scoop area revealed that the particles were embedded in the ground rather than lying on the surface, mission control concluded that they were of Martian origin and allowed a third scoop of soil to be collected.
Image of Curiosity's scoop showing particles too large for rover's labs, left over after vibrating (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
"We plan to learn more both about the spacecraft material and about the smaller, bright particles," said Curiosity Project Manager Richard Cook of JPL. "We will finish determining whether the spacecraft material warrants concern during future operations. The native Mars particles become fodder for the mission's scientific studies."
In other developments, Curiosity also finished investigations of a rock designated “Jake Matijevic.” Using its laser and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, Curiosity was able to determine the mineral content of the rock, and scientists have concluded that it is an igneous rock made of mugearite – similar to well-known, but uncommon volcanic rocks found on Earth. By coincidence, mugearite is also found in Glenelg, Scotland, which gave its name to the Martian region that Curiosity is exploring.
The video below is a JPL news update highlighting the sampling mission.