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Mars rover set to feed sand into its instrumental maw

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity, NASA’s Mars rover, has found a sandbox to play in. In a news briefing on Thursday from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, mission managers said that the rover has arrived at a soft pad of loose sand, dubbed Rocknest (pictured). They expect to stay there for a few weeks and feed small doses of the sand into its analytical instruments.  “We’re going to stay here for a little while,” says Curiosity mission manager Michael Watkins.

But first, the team will clean out the sample handling system at the end of the robotic arm, which contains the scoop. The rover will gather three scoops of sand and shake the sand through the handling system, using a vibe that can produce accelerations up to 8g. The shaking should scrub the walls of the system of a thin layer of residual oil. “We effectively use it to rinse our mouth,” says Daniel Limonadi, the surface-sampling phase lead.

While the rover is preparing to ingest solid samples for the first time, it has already taken four gulps of air, in an effort to analyse the atmosphere, which might include trace amounts of methane. Deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada says that the team is not yet ready to discuss its findings. “It’s very different from taking a picture and giving an easy interpretation.”

The rover has trundled about 400 metres from the landing site, and, with the stop at the sand box, it is still about a month away from Glenelg, the triple-point destination where the science team expects to perform its first drilling.

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