NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover reached another pair of milestones over the past week. Last Saturday, the 4x4-sized lander touched its first rock with the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) mounted on its seven-foot (2.1 m) robotic arm. Then on Wednesday, 50 Martian days into the mission, Curiosity took its longest drive yet as it rolled 160 feet (48.9 meters) eastward toward the Glenelg area. It also took the opportunity to show off the American flag.
The football-sized rock is named "Jake Matijevic" in commemoration of the mathematician-turned-rover-engineer, Jacob Matijevic (1947 - 2012), who played a critical part in Curiosity’s design and died days before the landing. The rock was sighted on September 19 and after three days of assessing it as a candidate for study and then rehearsing the maneuvers to avoid damaging the robotic arm, Jake Matijevic was touched by the rover’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument.
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The Canadian-made APXS studies rocks by firing radiation at them and then analyzing the x-rays that scatter back. By means of an x-ray spectrometer, it can determine what minerals make it up. To confirm the APXS’s readings, Jake Matijevic was also examined by Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam), which vaporized a minute quantity of the rock using a powerful laser and then studied the spectra of the resulting flash.
Composite image taken by the MAHLI instrument showing the rock "Jake Matijevic" at different magnifications (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Just to be thorough, mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California also had the rover examine the rock with its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which is a sort of digital magnifying glass.
In addition to doing a bit of mineralogy, Curiosity received another software upgrade. Previously, JPL swapped the software used by the rover during its journey to Mars with some better suited to navigating on the Red Planet. Now, it’s installed the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) upgrade. Last used on the Opportunity Mars rover, this software will allow Curiosity to seek out and photograph rocks on its own as it travels based on criteria set by JPL.
There was even time for a bit of flag waving – or flag imaging. Seen above, this image of an American flag medallion was taken by Curiosity's MAHLI instrument. The anodized aluminum medallion is mounted on one of the machine’s rocker arms that support the rover. The point where the medallion is mounted was originally meant for hardware that was never installed. It’s one of four medallions carried by Curiosity. The others are the NASA logo, the JPL logo and the Curiosity mission logo.
Another commemorative piece is this anodized aluminum plaque signed by NASA officials, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Similar plaques were installed on NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on Mars in January of 2004.
So far, Curiosity has driven a total distance of one-quarter mile (416 m) from Bradbury Landing, where it arrived on Mars on August 6. Since then, JPL has put the nuclear-powered explorer through a rigorous three-week shakedown followed by a series of test drives. During this time, Curiosity fired its rock-vaporizing laser, streamed the first human voice from another planet, wrote messages in the Martian soil and gave itself a thorough self-examination.
Next on JPL’s agenda, as Curiosity carries out its two-year mission to seek possible life-bearing sites on Mars, will be to identify a location for the rover to scoop up its first soil sample to be analyzed by its internal laboratories.
The video below was used by JPL to rehearse touching the rock Jake Matijevic with the robotic arm.