Mars rover Scooping in Search of Pristine material at Rocknest

by Ken Kremer on October 18, 2012

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Image caption: Time lapse context view of Curiosity maneuvering her robotic arm. Curiosity conducts a close- up examination of windblown ‘Rocknest’ ripple site and inspects sandy material at “bootlike” wheel scuff mark with the APXS (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer) and MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) instruments positioned on the rotatable turret at the arm’s terminus. Colorized mosaic was stitched together from Sol 57 & 58 Navcam raw images shows the arm in action just prior to 1st sample scooping here. Surrounding terrain and eroded rim of Gale Crater rim is visible on the horizon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity rover is actively searching for uncontaminated Martian soil after finding new flecks of “bright material” of unknown origin in the windblown sands at “Rocknest” ripple.

The team leading the Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) mission decided to dump the second scoopful of dusty material collected last week on Sol 66 (Oct. 12). Instead they will search for pristine Martian sand to pour into the rover’s critical sample-processing mechanisms to use as a decontamination agent for cleansing the interior chambers and walls of Earthly residues.

Image Caption: Bright Particle of Martian Origin in Scoop Hole. This image contributed to an interpretation by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity science team that some of the bright particles on the ground near the rover are native Martian material. Other light-toned material nearbyhas been assessed as small debris from the spacecraft. Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera took this image on Sol 66 (Oct. 12, 2012) showing part of the hole or bite left in the ground when Curiosity collected its first scoop of Martian soil five sols earlier. A clod of soil near the top center of the image contains a light-toned particle. The observation that the particle is embedded in the clod led scientists to assess this particle as Martian material, not something from the spacecraft. This assessment prompted the mission to continue scooping in the area, despite observations of a few light-toned particles in the area being scooped. The image shows an area about 2 inches (5 centimeters) across. It is brightened to improve visibility in the shaded area. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The science team is proceeding with appropriate caution – just as they indicated at press briefings – so as not to gum up the sample processing system with material that could give false positive readings for organic compounds or compromise the integrity of the rover’s delicate sample handling and delivery system.

“Concerns that the bright spot is more material shed from the flight system, and that some of this terrestrial material is in the scooped dirt, led the tactical team to decide to dump the scoop and take MAHLI images of the scoop targets first,” wrote MSL scientist Ken Herkenhoff in a rover team update.

The second scoopful of Martian sand from Rocknest was intentionally discarded on Sol 67 (Oct.13) after up close imaging by the MAHLI microscopic imaging camera revealed several specks of bright material that could be debris from the landing system or the rover itself or possibly even native Martian material.

The third test sample will be carefully analyzed by MAHLI, ChemCam and Mastcam and verified to be free of FOD before the team decides to pour the new processed sand into the processing system and eventually into the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) analytical chemistry instruments on the rover deck.

Image Caption: Small Debris on the Ground Beside Curiosity – This image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows a small bright object on the ground beside the rover at the “Rocknest” site about half an inch (1.3 centimeters) long. The rover team has assessed this object as debris from the spacecraft, possibly from the events of landing on Mars. The image was taken on Sol 65 (Oct. 11, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Progress has been slowed somewhat by communications glitches with a radio transmitter at a Deep Space Network ground station and an unrelated new problem with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) which went into “safe mode” on Sol 69. MRO serves as the highest volume communications relay for Curiosity’s images and scientific and engineering data.

Tosol is Sol 71 and Curiosity is now 10 weeks into her two year long mission to investigate whether Mars ever had conditions sufficient to sustain microbial life forms.

Curiosity made a pinpoint landing inside Gale Crater on Aug. 5/6, just a few miles away from her ultimate destination – the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp holding deposits of hydrated minerals.

Video Caption: This 256 frame video clip shows the 1st sample of Martian material being vibrated inside Curiosity’s table spoon sized scoop on Oct. 7, 2012.

Ken Kremer


Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC,, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight -

Aqua4U October 18, 2012 at 1:00 AM

The rounded nature of the surface particulates is surely indicative of wind driven erosion or tumbling processes? Given Mar’s history of continued global dust storms, that assumption seems much more likely now than ancient water borne erosion? Water borne eroded pebbles would certainly have been covered by dust or sand by now? Then again, the wind may have excavated and stratified the ancient water eroded pebbles? I note that the trenching does not show rounded particles at depth.. perhaps they are not very cohesive and are easily crushed?

Bottom line is that I for one, would certainly not wish to be on Mars during a planetary dust storm to find out which is true! Imagine the scenario during a global dust storm. At first lighter dust particles are lofted. Near the surface those particles collide with and loft heavier and heavier granules. The density of the lower atmosphere would increase exponentially. Eventually a ‘liquifaction’ event might occur. That is where dust and sand and pebbles behave like a dense liquid. Talk about your erosional processes… Sand blasting anyone?

Rick Holcomb October 18, 2012 at 1:27 PM

A good reason to build your habitat underground in a lava tube.

Aqua4U October 18, 2012 at 3:19 PM

Eeyup! It’s even possible that Curiosity, with it’s presumed long life, might experience such an event? Now wouldn’t that be interesting? It would be good to see what goes on during a global dust conflagration from the surface but bad for the instrumentation? There’s no telling what the cameras might be able to see due to visibility constraints, but the after effects would certainly be interesting.

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