In the meantime, further examination of the visible parts of CHIMRA indicated that the system has more than likely been sufficiently cleaned to undertake the delivery of a soil sample for analysis by the CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) instrument in rover’s body. This being the case, commands were sent to the rover on Sol 69 for it to collect a third sample of soil, with the determination that if visual studies confirmed it to be suitable, a portion of it would be delivered to CheMin.
Following visual examination of the sample, it was delivered into CHIMRA and subjected to vibration processing through that system prior to delivery to the transfer box. The arm was then rotated back over the forward part of Curiosity, and a small sample delivered to the observation tray (seen at the bottom of the image above) on Sol 70 (October 16th). This sample was then imaged using Mastcam, and further scraped across the observation tray so that scientists could better understand the broad physical composition of the material in the transfer box prior to dropping it into CheMin.
Satisfied the sample was suitable for ingestion by CheMin, the command was given for the rover to position the transfer box over the CheMin inlet funnel and deliver around 20 grams of material (about half a baby aspirin) into CheMin on Sol 71.
Commenting on this first delivery to Curiosity’s on-board analysis systems, lead scientist for the mission John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena said, “We are crossing a significant threshold for this mission by using CheMin on its first sample. This instrument gives us a more definitive mineral-identifying method than ever before used on Mars: X-ray diffraction. Confidently identifying minerals is important because minerals record the environmental conditions under which they form.”
The results of this first analysis have yet to be released. In the meantime, plans are in hand for a further sample scoop to be collected, this one most likely destined for delivery to the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) instrument.
Communications with Curiosity went through a period of interruption during the week as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) went through a “safing” cycle. These can occur when sensors detect a possible problem with the spacecraft, and place it is a “safe” mode with reduced capabilities while the situation is analysed on Earth. This meant that while MRO was in this mode, the rover’s ability to communicate with Earth was somewhat restricted over a two-day period between the 15th and 17th of October, when it was reliant on either direct communications with Earth when it was above the rover’s horizon, or via Mars Odyssey, both of which required data transfer and much slower data rates than can be achieved when relaying via MRO.
Meanwhile, Elsewhere on Mars…
While all the attention is on Curiosity, it shouldn’t be forgotten that MSL’s sole surviving older and smaller sibling is still working hard on Mars and approaching the end of its ninth year in what was original a 90-day mission. Having arriving on Mars over 3,000 Sols ago, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity continues to study the region around a “small” crater dubbed Endeavour Crater (“small” inasmuch as it is only 22 kilometres (14 miles) across).
The spring equinox has just passed for Opportunity, which has now travelled over 35 kilometres (21 miles) on Mars, exploring a number of geological targets and turning up some remarkable finds. The most recent of these, found in September were strange concentrations of spheroids found in an area called Kirkwood on the western rim of Endeavour Crater.
Following its arrival on Mars at the start of 2004, Opportunity discovered a form of tiny spheres the mission team dubbed “blueberries”, which were subsequently found at a number of locations along its lonely sojourn across the southern hemisphere of Mars. Analysis of these “blueberries” revealed them to be concretions formed by action of mineral-laden water inside rocks, evidence of a wet environment on early Mars. The spheroids found at Kirkwood are entirely different, leading the Opportunity team to dub them, the “spheres that don’t taste like blueberries”.
“They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle,” Steve Squyres, Opportunity’s principal investigator from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. said. “They are different in concentration. They are different in structure. They are different in composition. They are different in distribution. So, we have a wonderful geological puzzle in front of us. We have multiple working hypotheses, and we have no favorite hypothesis at this time. It’s going to take a while to work this out, so the thing to do now is keep an open mind and let the rocks do the talking.”
Since the discovery, Opportunity has moved on to Matijevic Hill, a feature on the edge of Endeavour Crater named for Jacob Matijevic, who worked on all three generations of NASA’s Mars rovers, and who died shortly after Curiosity arrived on Mars. This region has even more of the strange spheroids, and it is anticipated that Opportunity could spend several months examining the area.
Read all MSL reports in this blog.
All images courtesy NAS/JPL unless otherwise credited.