NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover ended its holiday break this week and resumed its travels across the Red Planet. The unmanned nuclear-powered explorer drove about 10 feet (3 m) northwestward to a sinuous rock feature called ”Snake River.” This brings its total driving distance since touching down at Bradbury Landing on August 6 to 2,303 feet (702 m). As part of its next phase of exploration, Curiosity tested its motorized brush for the first time and is seeking a target for its sampling drill.
Snake River is located in a region of Mars called "Yellowknife Bay," which is a shallow depression that is flatter and lighter-toned than areas previously explored by Curiosity. "[Snake River is] one piece of the puzzle," said mission project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology. "It has a crosscutting relationship to the surrounding rock and appears to have formed after the deposition of the layer that it transects."
The 4x4-sized Curiosity’s current task is to help mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California evaluate candidates for the first use of the rover’s hammering drill. This drill, which is located in the “hand” of Curiosity’s robotic arm, collects powdered samples from the interior of rocks to be analyzed by Curiosity’s onboard laboratories. As part of this evaluation, Curiosity spent its holiday taking images of the surrounding area searching for interesting rock formations.
This week additionally saw the first use of Curiosity’s brush, which is also located in the rover’s hand. Built by Honeybee Robotics, the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) is a motorized, wire-bristle brush designed to clear away the rust-red dust and sand that covers most of the Martian surface, so that the drill has a clear target. This also helps Curiosity in using its Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer and the Mars Hand Lens Imager.
For its first test, the DRT was used on a rock designated "Ekwir_1." Sweeping away dust may seem like a simple task, but according to Diana Trujillo of JPL, that’s not the case. "We need to place the instrument within less than half an inch of the target without putting the hardware at risk," she said. "We needed a flat target, one that wasn't rough, one that was covered with dust. The results certainly look good."
Curiosity’s latest tasks are part of its two-year mission to seek out areas of Mars where life may have once or still could exist.
The JPL video below is Curiosity’s greeting shown in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.