NASA Curiosity rover wiggles toes in Mars sand (before eating it)

Los Angeles Times

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has paused, wiggled its toes into the sand and is set to break out its scooper for the first time to sample the Red Planet, mission scientists announced Thursday.

Having driven 484 meters from its landing site in Gale Crater, the Mars Science Laboratory rover has made a pit stop to sample dunes at a spot called Rocknest. 

“We’re going to use, for the first time, one of the keystone capabilities of the rover,” said mission manager Mike Watkins.

The mission engineers were looking for “a good sandbox, a good sand dune to play in,” said Watkins, when Rocknest was spotted in the distance. The rover drove up to the dune and turned its wheel in the sand, to make sure it was dry and loose -- ideal for cleaning out the scoop system.

This weekend, the rover will first spoon up some sand and run it thorugh its scoop system to remove a thin, oily film that collects on objects subjected to the Earth’s atmosphere – no matter how squeaky clean the rover was when the engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory bid their robot geologist farewell.

The rover will “swish-and-spit” some sand a few times and then will then feed some samples to the lab in its belly, hitting the sand with X-rays to reveal its mineral structure and analyzing its chemical makeup using a suite of spectrometers.  It will also take photos of the fine grains up close using its microscopic hand-lens imager.

The whole process may take two or three weeks, mission officials said. The spot lies about 325 feet short of its current main target, Glenelg Intrigue, where three types of terrain meet. Glenelg’s outcrops could provide the first opportunity for Curiosity’s drill to bore into rock.

Curiosity’s ultimate goal is Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mound in the middle of Gale Crater, whose lower layers could hold clays indicating whether Mars was once hospitable to life.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.