There, Curiosity will study a terrain that was home to streams and ponds billion of years ago.
Curiosity, NASA’s Mars rover, has recently reached a region of Mount Sharp. This region is enriched with salty minerals after traveling through a narrow, sand-lined pass this summer. The Mars rover currently marks ten years on the red planet and continues to outperform its initial expectations. Curiosity has helped us understand the past of Mars and what the planet was like billions of years ago. As streams and ponds dried up billions of years ago, minerals were left behind. Furthermore, these minerals may provide tantalizing clues to explain how and why the Red Planet’s climate changed from a warmer Earth-like climate to the freezing desert it is today, if the hypothesis is correct.
Years before Curiosity landed in 2012, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted minerals on the planet. Therefore, scientists have been eager to see these minerals up close for a long time. Upon arrival, the rover discovered a wide variety of rock types and water signs. It found nodules with a popcorn-like texture and salty minerals such as calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, and sodium chloride, which can be found in regular table salt. The 36th drill sample was selected based on a rock nicknamed “Canaima,” and it wasn’t an easy choice. The rover hardware had to be considered along with scientific considerations. Additionally, as part of its analysis of rock samples, Curiosity uses a rotary drill that pulverizes the samples with a percussive or jackhammering effect. Also, and as a result of worn brakes on the arm, the team concluded that drilling some harder rocks may require excessive hammering.
It’s a process
The process before every drill begins with brushing away the dust and poking Canaima gently with a drill. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Curiosity’s new project manager Kathya Zamora-Garcia, it may prove difficult to drill without scratch marks or indentations. Also, scientists considered whether it would pose any risk to our arm. We found it easy to collect a sample of Canaima using the new drilling algorithm. This minimized the use of percussion. In the end, no percussion was required.” Samples will be analyzed by the Chemical and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin) along with the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM).
This past August, Curiosity navigated treacherous terrain, including the sandy Paraitepuy Pass, sandwiched between high hills, to reach the sulfate-rich region. However, to reach its destination, the rover had to navigate safely for more than a month. In addition to sharp rocks damaging Curiosity’s wheels (which still have plenty of life left), sand can also cause the rover to lose traction, causing it to get stuck. These areas require careful navigation by Rover drivers. It was difficult for Curiosity to see the sky. Its antennas had to be pointed toward Earth, and its communication with orbiters had to be carefully timed. The rover’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, captured an incredible panorama using its Mast Camera on Aug. 14 after its crew braved those risks.
Every morning, we received fresh images and we were just blown away, says Elena Amador-French, Curiosity’s science operations coordinator. It was beautiful to see the sand ridges. You see perfect little rover tracks on them. And the cliffs were beautiful – we got really close to the walls. In spite of its scientific value, this new region comes with its own set of challenges. Furthermore, the rockier terrain increases the difficulty of finding a place where all six wheels of Curiosity are on stable ground. Engineers will not risk unstowing the arm if the rover is not stable, fearing it might hit jagged rocks. Amador-French said Mars seems to throw more obstacles at them as the scientific results get more interesting.