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NASA’s Curiosity rover is very close to drilling into its first Martian rock, with the set-up operation likely to begin next week.

After breaking for the holidays, the mission team would be raring to undertake the task in the coming days, said lead scientist John Grotzinger.

The robot has driven about 650 m from its landing site, dropping down into a depression known as Yellowknife Bay.

It is in this depression that the target rock will probably be chosen.

All of Curiosity’s instruments have been commissioned. The drill is the only tool that has yet to be deployed.

Its hammer action will enable the device to retrieve powdered samples from up to 5 cm inside the rock, which can then passed to the rover’s onboard laboratories for analysis.

“We are firing on all cylinders now and our last thing to do is drilling, and we really hope to start on that process beginning next week,” said the California Institute of Technology professor.

As Curiosity trundled through Yellowknife Bay in December, it used its survey instruments to try to identify the most promising candidate rock. This equipment comprises the mast-mounted color cameras and laser spectrometer, and the arm-held “hand lens” camera and X-ray spectrometer.

NASA Curiosity rover is very close to drilling into its first Martian rock

Yellowknife was chosen as a destination because it represents a different type of rock terrain to the one on which Curiosity landed in August and on which it has done most of its driving. Satellite observations indicate this landscape has a high thermal inertia – that is to say, at night it loses heat more slowly than the terrains that about it in the local area.

Pictures returned to Earth from inside Yellowknife Bay appear to show copious sedimentary deposits.

“We’re down at the very lowest layer – what would be the oldest layer that we would see in this succession that might be five to eight metres thick, and that is very likely where we are going to choose our first drilling target, because suddenly we’ve come into an area that represents a very high diversity of things we haven’t seen before,” said Prof. John Grotzinger.

In 2012, Curiosity examined the dusty soils that gave it an insight into the processes that drive the dry and cold environment that dominates Mars today. Drilling into rock this month will allow scientists to glimpse processes that held sway in ancient times, hopefully ones where water played key roles.

“The place where Curiosity is right now is a small stack of layers – very impressive – and they could be 3-3.5 billion years old, and so we’re very excited about this because unlike the soil which we were analyzing before the holiday season – a loose, windswept patch of dirt on the surface of Mars – we’re now going to start digging down into the very ancient bedrock which we really built the rover to look at,” explained Prof. John Grotzinger.

“We use these layers as a sort of recording device of past events and conditions, and the rover has the same kind of analytical capability that we would use here on Earth to tell us about the early environmental conditions; and, if life had ever evolved, [whether it would] be the kind of environment that would have been conducive towards sustaining that life.”

The panorama of Yellowknife Bay at the top of this page was assembled by US-based scientist and journalist Ken Kremer and Italy-based physicist and photographer Marco Di Lorenzo. Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo are routinely stitching together the stream of images returned by Curiosity to make vistas that NASA itself does not always find the time to produce and place in the public domain.

The top picture incorporates shots from the rover’s black-and-white navigation cameras that have subsequently been colored.

Below is a panorama looking away into the distance towards the foothills of Mount Sharp, the 5 km rise that is the eventual destination of Curiosity. Once the rover has finished investigating Yellowknife Bay, it will climb back out and begin the drive to the mountain. This journey is likely to take many months.

NASA’s Curiosity rover is preparing to scoop its first sample of Martian soil.

The vehicle, which landed on the Red Planet in August, has driven up to a pile of sandy material that mission scientists have dubbed “Rocknest”.

This weekend, the robot will dig into the ground with its clamshell-shaped trowel, with the aim first of cleaning the mechanism of earthly contamination.

Later, it will repeat the task and deliver an aspirin-sized measure of sand to onboard labs for analysis.

NASA engineers have cautioned that the whole process will be long and drawn out. The machinery involved is complex and the team says it needs time to learn how best to operate it.

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), will very likely be stationary at Rocknest for a couple of weeks while the scoop tests are carried out.

And, as with some of the earlier science experiments conducted by the rover, the scoop results – when they come – are expected to be fairly mundane. The sand is very probably just the product of weathered basalt, the ubiquitous volcanic rock on Mars’ surface.

The team is more concerned about getting its sample handling procedures right than making significant new discoveries.

A key objective of the first excavations will be to thoroughly clean the internal mechanisms of the robotic arm tool that does the digging.

It is called Chimra, or Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis.

Although assembled in ultra-sterile conditions at NASA, this tool will still have acquired an oily film deposit in Earth air that would contaminate the rover’s lab analysis results if left in place. By running several scoops through the handling system, Curiosity can scrub the film from Chimra.

“We effectively use it to rinse our mouth three times and then spit out,” explained Daniel Limonadi, the Curiosity surface sampling phase lead at the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“We will take a scoop bite, we will vibrate that sand on all the different surfaces inside Chimra to effectively sand blast those surfaces, and then we dump all that material out; and we rinse and repeat three times to finish cleaning everything out.”

Once this procedure is complete, a tiny sample will be delivered to the onboard labs, Sam and CheMin, to run chemical and mineralogical analyses.

The sand will be severely shaken and sieved to make sure only fine-grained material, less than the width of a human hair in diameter, reaches the instruments.

The team will be mindful of the extreme difficulty a previous Mars mission, the Phoenix probe of 2008, had in getting material to go through its sample handling system.

“Phoenix had a relatively uncontrolled drop off capability; they had just the one scoop and that scoop had to do everything,” said Daniel Limonadi.

“We use gravity and vibration to get things into little parts of Chimra that make very controlled volumes of portions for us to drop off.”

The rover has now driven at total of 484 m (of about 1,590 ft) since its 6 August landing on the floor of Gale Crater, a huge depression on Mars’ equator.

It still has about 176 m to travel to get to a location dubbed Glenelg, a place satellite images have indicated is a junction between three different geological terrains.

It is at Glenelg where Curiosity will really get down to the business of investigating past environments in Gale.

Last week, scientists announced the robot had taken pictures of rocks that were clearly deposited in fast running water. The theory is that the rover is sitting at the head of an ancient alluvial fan where a network of streams cut across the crater floor billions of years ago.


NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity has zapped its first Martian rock.

Curiosity rover fired its ChemCam laser at a tennis-ball-sized stone lying about 2.5 m away on the ground.

The brief but powerful burst of light from the instrument vaporized the surface of the rock, revealing details of its basic chemistry.

This was just target practice for ChemCam, proving it is ready to begin the serious business of investigating the geology of the Red Planet.

It is part of a suite of instruments on the one-ton robot, which landed two weeks ago in a deep equatorial depression known as Gale Crater.

Over the course of one Martian year, Curiosity will try to determine whether past environments at its touchdown location could ever have supported life.

The US-French ChemCam instrument will be a critical part of that investigation, helping to select the most interesting objects for study.

The inaugural target of the laser was a 7 cm-wide rock dubbed “Coronation” (previously N165).

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity has zapped its first Martian rock

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity has zapped its first Martian rock

It had no particular science value, and was expected to be just another lump of ubiquitous Martian basalt, a volcanic rock.

Its appeal was the nice smooth face it offered to the laser.

ChemCam zapped it with 30 pulses of infrared light during a 10-second period.

Each pulse delivered to a tiny spot more than a million watts of power for about five billionths of a second.

The instrument observed the resulting spark through a telescope; the component colors would have told scientists which atomic elements were present.

“We got a great spectrum of Coronation – lots of signal,” said ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico.

“Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it’s pay-off time.”

One aspect being considered by the team is whether the signal changed slightly as the laser burrowed through any exterior layers that might have coated Coronation.

“Coatings can tell you about, say, the weather or what has happened to a rock through the eons,” said Dr. Rogers Wiens last week.

“We will look at the first few laser shots and see if there is any difference as we move further into the rock.”

The British company e2v provided the imaging sensor behind the ChemCam telescope that routes the light signal, via optical fibres, to the onboard spectrometer which does the chemical analysis.

The charge-coupled device (CCD) was specially prepared for the instrument to increase its sensitivity.

“The scientists always want to see more, but they want to see more without cost to performance,” said e2v’s Jon Kemp.

“Our process was able to almost double the signal to noise ratio.”

The first science target for ChemCam will be bedrock exposed on the ground next to Curiosity by the rocket-powered crane used to lower the vehicle to the crater floor on 6 August (GMT).

Exhaust from this descent stage scattered surface grit and pebbles to reveal a harder, compact material underneath.

The crane made four scour marks in the ground – two either side of the rover. These have been dubbed Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon – names taken from ancient rock formations in Canadian North America.

Goulburn Scour will be zapped by ChemCam once the mission team has reviewed fully the Coronation performance and results.


Curiosity rover is getting ready to zap its first Martian rock.

A small stone lying just to the side of the vehicle at its landing site on the floor of Gale Crater has been selected as a test target for the ChemCam laser.

The brief but powerful burst of light from this instrument will vaporize the surface of the rock, revealing details of its basic chemistry.

Dubbed N165, the object is not expected to have any science value, but should show ChemCam is ready for serious work.

“I’d probably guess this is a typical Mars basalt – basaltic rocks making up a large fraction of all the igneous rocks on Mars,” said Roger Wiens, the instrument’s principal investigator.

“A basalt, which is also common under the ocean on Earth, typically has 48% silicon dioxide and percent amounts of iron, calcium and magnesium, and sodium and potassium oxides as well. We’re not expecting any surprises,” said the Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher.

Curiosity rover is getting ready to zap its first Martian rock

Curiosity rover is getting ready to zap its first Martian rock

Curiosity touched down in its equatorial crater two weeks ago.

Its mission is to investigate the rocks at its landing site for evidence that past environments could have supported life.

The rover carries a suite of instruments for the purpose, but its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) experiment has probably garnered most attention because nothing like it has ever been flown to Mars before.

ChemCam sits high up on the rover’s mast from where it directs a laser beam on to rocks up to 7 m (23 ft) away.

The spot hit by the infrared laser gets more than a million watts of power focused on it for five one-billionths of a second.

This produces a spark that the instrument observes with a telescope. The colors tell scientists which atomic elements are present in the rock.

ChemCam is going to be a key part of the process of selecting science targets during Curiosity’s two-year mission.

If the laser shows up an interesting rock, the vehicle will move closer and deploy its other instruments for a more detailed investigation.

Assuming the test with the 7 cm-wide N165 object goes well, ChemCam will move on to its first science target.

This will be rock exposed on the ground next to the rover by the rocket-powered crane used to lower the vehicle to the crater floor.

Exhaust from this descent stage scattered surface grit and pebbles to reveal a harder, compact material underneath.

The crane made four scour marks in the ground – two either side of Curiosity. These have been dubbed Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon.

The names, all related to fire, are taken from ancient rock formations in Canadian North America.

Goulburn Scour will be zapped by ChemCam.

“There’s bedrock exposed beneath the soil with interesting patterns of color,” said John Grotzinger, Curiosity’s project scientist.

“There’re lighter parts; there’re darker parts, and the team is busy deliberating over how this rock unit may have formed and what it’s composed of. We’ll aim the ChemCam [at Goulburn Scour], as well as taking even higher resolution images.”

Curiosity has not moved since landing on 6 August (GMT). That is about to change.

The rover is going to roll forward briefly to test its locomotion system in the next few days. A reverse manoeuvre is planned, also.

Researchers want eventually to drive several kilometres to the base of the big mountain at the centre of Gale Crater to study sediments that look from satellite pictures to have been laid down in the presence of abundant water.

This journey to the foothills of Mount Sharp is going to have to wait a few months, however, because the science team intends first to go in the opposite direction.

Several hundred metres to the east of Curiosity’s present position is an intersection of three geological terrains.

Again, this location has been given a name – Glenelg. And, again, it is taken from the geology of North America.

The intersection is intriguing and a good place to compare and contrast with the bedrock exposed in Goulburn Scour.

In addition, it may provide access to older, harder rocks. These could make for a first opportunity for Curiosity to use its drill.

“Even though it is in the opposite direction from the path to Mount Sharp, it’s the one place we can go to capture a lot of the information that’s persevered in our landing [location],” said Prof. John Grotzinger.