Having already reached its first milestone with the discovery of ancient water flows on the Red Planet, NASA Mars rover Curiosity will now go on to collect its first soil sample from the Martian surface.
Last week, it was announced that the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), on its way to its first way point, Glenelg, a geological "confluence," discovered evidence of ancient water flow weathering rocks, pointing towards the first substantial evidence of the existence of water in Mars’ past. Having landed on the Red Planet on August 6 in the Gale Crater, Curiosity has been quite busy, taking numerous pictures, charting the transit of Mars’ moons against the sun, studying some volcanic rock and of course discovering the ancient water flow. Now the rover is preparing to take its first sample of Martian soil for analysis on its onboard laboratory and will do so at an area designated by mission scientists as the "Rocknest".
This sandy area with numerous rocks will be the first soil sample that the MSL will take and in order to obtain its samples, the rover will be using a clamshell-shaped trowel known as the Chimra or Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis , which it will first decontaminate of an earthly materials by digging it into the sand repeatedly, described by NASA scientists as “rinse our mouth three times and then spit out.”
It is believed that the Chimra may still have a film of earthly contaminants on it, even though it was made in extremely sterile conditions and in order to be sure, the digging into the sand is effectively meant to sand-blast the Chimra to clean it out.
Once the mission scientists are satisfied, they will then proceed to obtain soil samples, which the rover will then ingest, feeding the near pellet-sized samples to its onboard laboratories, Sam and CheMin, for chemical and mineralogical analysis.
The rover is expected to be at the Rocknest site for a couple of weeks as Curiosity undergoes its clean and sample tasks. Having driven almost 484 meters since landing, the MSL is still within the Gale Crater and on its way to Glenelg, which is some 176m away. Glenelg is particularly important, as it is a site within the crater where three different geological terrains intersect and it is where the rover will really study Mars’ past to see what kind of an environment it had and whether or not this supported life at any point.