Curiosity rover eats Martian dirt and finds unusual ‘bright particles’

One of the bright particles found by the Curiosity rover in a sample hole dug at Rocknest. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

For the first time since landing, the Curiosity rover has delivered its first soil sample to the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, which is right now being analyzed to determine the mineral composition. The sample was successfully delivered to CheMin on October 17.

As a fully-equipped mobile laboratory, Curiosity is now doing what it was designed to do, study the mineralogical and chemical makeup of the soil and rocks in Gale crater.

As project scientist John Grotzinger explains, “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.”

This is actually the third scoop of material taken from the sand ripple called Rocknest; the first one was used to scrub and clean the inside surfaces of the sample-processing chambers before the third sample was actually delivered to CheMin for analysis.

The second scoop had revealed something interesting – tiny particles of bright (light-toned) material in the resulting hole. The first thought from the Curiosity team was that they might be related to the previous odd object found in this same location, which turned out to be a small piece of plastic from either the descent stage (during landing) or the rover itself. This second scoop of soil ended up being discarded due to concern that the bright particles might also be from the rover.

During yesterday’s press briefing however, it was mentioned that the interesting new material is not the same as the plastic and is probably indigenous to Mars, ie. not man-made litter. So what is it? Could it be related to the area’s watery past? Scientists don’t know yet, but they plan to examine it further.

According to project manager Richard Cook, “We plan to learn more both about the spacecraft material and about the smaller, bright particles. We will finish determining whether the spacecraft material warrants concern during future operations. The native Mars particles become fodder for the mission’s scientific studies.”

As with every Mars mission, there are surprises and discoveries that help scientists to further understand the history of this fascinating world, and even after only a little more than a couple of months, Curiosity is proving to be no exception.

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