Mars Curiosity rover readies for Red Planet trek

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has completed the delicate calibration of a robotic arm as it awaits further instructions in Gale Crater near the Martian equator.

Extensive tests analyzed the capabilities and status of the Collection and Handling for In-situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) tasked with processing samples of soil and powdered rock – collected by scoop or drill. 

The device is equipped with chambers and labyrinths for sorting, sieving and portioning samples before the arm delivers them to analytical instruments. 

Other tests included imaging of the rover’s observation tray by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), along with observations of the Martian moon Phobos passing in front of the sun by Curiosity’s Mast Camera.

In addition, the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) – used to determine the elemental composition of a target rock – passed preparatory tests at the rover’s current location.

Curiosity’s Canadian-made APXS had taken atmospheric readings earlier, but its first use on a solid target on Mars was conducted this week on a calibration target brought from Earth. X-ray detectors work best cold, but even the daytime APXS tests produced clean data for identifying elements in the target.

“The spectrum peaks are so narrow, we’re getting excellent resolution, just as good as we saw in tests on Earth under ideal conditions,” confirmed APXS principal investigator Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. “The good news is that we can now make high-resolution measurements even at high noon to support quick decisions about whether a sample is worthwhile for further investigations.”

Curiosity’s next stop – approximately 1,312 feet away from its current location – is a site dubbed “Glenelg” where three different types of rock can be found. 

Curiosity is five weeks into a 2-year prime mission on Mars. It will deploy 10 science instruments in an effort to determine whether the selected field site inside Gale Crater has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.