Rover takes first taste of dirt

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has chomped up its first solid sample, taking it into its Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument for analysis.

It’s a tiny bite – about the size of a baby aspirin, says NASA – and was part of the third scoop collected by Curiosity from the dusty area of sand called Rocknest.

“We are crossing a significant threshold for this mission by using CheMin on its first sample,” says 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.”

The sample was picked up by the rover’s robotic arm and dropped into CheMin’s opened inlet funnel on Wednesday.

The previous day, the scooped material had been shaken inside sample-processing chambers to scrub internal surfaces of any residue carried from Earth. One earlier scoopful was also used for cleaning – and the same process will be repeated several times before delivery of a future sample to the rover’s other internal analytic instrument, the Sample Analysis at Mars investigation, which studies samples’ chemistry.

Various small pieces of light-toned material on the ground at Rocknest have affected the rover’s activities in the past few days. One piece about half an inch long was noticed on October 7, and identified as debris from the spacecraft.

The second scoop of Rocknest material, on October 12, showed smaller bits of light-toned material in the resultinghole. As a result, this scoopful was thrown away, rather than being used to scrub the processing mechanisms.

Scientists reckon these smaller, bright particles are be native Martian material, and not from the spacecraft.

“We plan to learn more both about the spacecraft material and about the smaller, bright particles,” says Curiosity project manager Richard Cook.

“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.”