The Mars rover Curiosity is putting its dramatic explorations on hold, for tests and essential cleaning: After all, if it's going to accurately analyze Martian soil, it must shed its Earthly residue.
Two months and a just over half a mile into its mission, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is taking time out for tests of key tools for sampling the Martian soil – and, it turns out, for some badly needed scrubbing.
Over the next two to three weeks, engineers will direct Curiosity to scoop sand from a stone-dotted mini-dune the team has dubbed Rocknest and to run it through sample-processing hardware dubbed CHIMRA.
It's a cleaning approach akin to a camper scouring the last meal's cookware with sand. After the scrubbing, NASA controllers plan to test CHIMRA's ability to feed samples collected by the scoop, and later Curiosity's drill, into two key instrument packages inside the rover’s chassis.
IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars
The clean-out is in preparation for the rover's main mission: analyzing rocks and soils to see if Gale Crater and its central summit, Mt. Sharp, once hosted an environment that could have supported life.
Curiosity's science team already has started to build a strong case for the presence of significant quantities of water flowing – at least periodically – through the crater billions of years ago. Water is a key ingredient for organic life.
Images released last week of rock outcroppings showed clear evidence they were formed from solidified silt and water-tumbled stones. The team's consensus interpretation: The feature represents the remains of a stream bed, perhaps uplifted and exposed by a small meteor that could have struck the spot.
The outcroppings appeared to be associated with the leading edge of a broad fan of sediment that on Earth forms as water carries soil and rock down mountainsides to lower elevations, where it spreads in what geologists call alluvial fans. In this case, the fan would have built as water flowed down now-eroded hills that form part of Gale Crater's rim.
After capturing such suggestive images, cleaning and more testing may seem a bit mundane. But it's necessary, says Daniel Limonadi, the lead systems engineer for the rover's sampling and science systems.
"Even though we make this hardware super-squeaky clean, just by virtue of being on Earth you get this residual, oily film that is impossible to avoid," he says.