Curiosity to scoop, shake, rattle and roll Mars sand this weekend

A windblown sand ripple at the Rocknest site. Curiosity used its wheel to crunch into the sand just to the right of the larger foreground rock which is about 5 inches wide. See photo below. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

After two “rinse and spits”, the Mars Curiosity Rover will examine its first crumbles of Mars soil at a site called Rocknest this weekend. Its clamshell-shaped scoop, measuring 1.8 inches wide by 2.8 inches long, will dig down about an inch and a half into the sandy ripples at Rocknest to gather four different samples.

In preparation for taking its first scoop of soil, Curiosity rolled one of its wheels into the sand ripple earlier this week to break the surface and expose fresh material for sampling. The track is about 16 inches wide. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

The Rover’s first two scoops will be brought inside the sample-processing chambers and shaken thoroughly to scrub the handling system of any remaining earthly residues like oil films on parts and machinery. The “sandblasting” process requires several hours of vigorous shaking.

“We effectively use it (the sand) to rinse our mouth, right, three times, and then kind of spit up,” JPL’s Daniel Limonadi, Curiosity surface sampling phase lead.

Curiosity took this photo of its soil scoop on September 27. Looks clean and shiny as a new spatula. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

Curiosity will scoop and shake a third sample before placing it in an observation tray for inspection by camera. A portion of the third sample will be delivered to the mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover. From the fourth, samples will be delivered to both CheMin and the sample analysis instrument (SAM), which identifies chemical ingredients including organic (carbon-containing) compounds. All that’s missing from Curiosity’s chemistry lab is a guy in a white coat.

Rocknest, named for ripples of wind-deposited sand beneath a “nest” of rocks, will be Curiosity’s home for the next few weeks. The area, about 8 feet by 16 feet, provides lots of scooping opportunities. The rover will also investigate nearby rocks. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

The rover will spend several weeks at Rocknest during its first scooping campaign before moving on about 100 yards eastward to the intriguing Glenelg site, where three different types of terrain intersect. You can follow the day-to-day mission on the rover’s Facebook and Twitter sites.

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