NASA Rover Curiosity has finally completed analysis of a “bite” of dirt. The result of overnight analysis is that soil mineralogy at Rocknest is similar to soils on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, containing feldspar and olivine particles.
The Mars Rover has been parked at Rocknest, a location near its first targeted goal, Glenelg, for about 30 sols now. At this location it found fine and coarser particles that would permit Chemical and Mineralogical analysis in its on-board CheMin Analyzer. The first three “bites” of the grainy soil were used for hours of vibration within and through its analyzers and other equipment. This is basic technique. The scientist rinses or otherwise cleans his equipment with the material to be analyzed, removing any trace of “foreign” contamination (now there’s an understatement). In Curiosity’s case, vibration cleansing continued for as long as eight hours. While these samples were being taken, some bright “shiny” particles were seen within the soil. Unlike the first instance, when a fairly large bright object was identified as a scrap of plastic from Curiosity itself, NASA decided these were natural mineral particles in the soil. The final bite of soil was used for analysis.
During its sojourn at Rocknest, curiosity has also experimented with firing its ChemCam Laser into a small phalanx of rocks nicknamed Stonehenge and analyzing the result spectrographically. Finally, data is beginning to arrive back at NASA in significant quantity, and is being shared on Curiosity’s Facebook site almost in real time. Everyone gets a peek at Curiosity’s latest work. Commenters have even been able to persuade NASA to provide additional, as well as different from the first effort, data.
Curiosity is analyzing everything in sight to help determine whether Mars was ever actually capable of supporting life, in essence fingerprinting every type of soil, rock, and anything else it comes across… even the atmosphere. A search for organically produced methane gas is underway using the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.
And then there’s the Twitter Tweeter Curiosity team. Most recently the rover tweeted: “MAHLI Rocks! Used my hand-lens imager to take pics of diverse rocks in the Rocknest area and am preparing for an overnight analysis of soil samples with the CheMin instrument. Rover report: http://1.usa.gov/S9UHcc“
Much of the time at Rocknest was spent in preparation for analysis, during which scientists analyzed photos from earlier locations and identified several highly regular loops and whorls seemingly “carved” into rocks in what seems to have been a water-rich environment. The loops and whorls are similar to the marks left in Earth coral by sea urchins and sand dollars. However, these are indicator prints, not fossils of animals… and they may, in fact, be of wind or water origin, rather than coral-eating animal origin… but they definitely look like the real deal.