Curiosity To Reach Out And Touch A Rock Named Jake

The drive by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity during the mission’s 43rd Martian day, or sol, (Sept. 19, 2012) ended with this rock about 8 feet in front of the rover. The rover team consider it a suitable target for the first use of rover’s contact instruments on a rock. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Meet Jake. He’s about 10 inches tall, 16 inches wide and calls Mars home. Jake’s a rock named for the late Jacob Matijevic (mah-TEE-uh-vik), who was the surface operations systems chief engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory Project and the Curiosity rover.  Matijevic passed away on August 20 at age 64 just two weeks after Curiosity landed on the Red Planet. He was also a leading engineer the previous NASA Mars rovers Sojourner (1997), Spirit and Opportunity (2004).

the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on NASA’s Curiosity rover, with the Martian landscape in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The rover spotted the unusual rock during the drive to the Glenelg site. Curiosity’s parked about 8 feet from Jake and ready to “touch” it with the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) mounted on its robotic arm.

APXS will be placed in contact with the rock and bombard it X-rays and alpha particles. Alpha particles are the nuclei of a helium atoms made of two protons and two neutrons.

When they interact with atoms in the rock, the atoms give off X-rays of specific energies depending on their type. APXS’s spectrometer analyzes the emissions to identify the composition of the rock’s minerals. The rover’s microscopic imager will also shoot a series of closeup portraits.

Schist boulder pitted by sand blast near Palm Springs Station. Credit: Walter Curran Mendenhall

Take a look at that gorgeous rock. Besides it’s interesting pyramidal shape, the erosion on the near side reminds me of similar rocks on Earth (also identified previously on Mars) that have been pitted, grooved and polished by blowing sand or ice. They’re called ventifacts and found in deserts where a lack of vegetation allows winds to drill away at the rock. Mars has sand and wind enough, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re responsible for Jake’s fluted front side.

Remember the picture of Phobos transiting the sun Curiosity snapped on September 13? Here’s a short video at a higher resolution.

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