NASA rover Curiosity gets first scoop on Mars

Super rover set to scoop up first soil samples on Martian surface this weekend

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is set to begin a very busy weekend.

The rover is slated to scoop up its first sample of Martian soil on Saturday, NASA reported.

Curiosity on Wednesday came across a sandy area that NASA scientists decided would be a good spot for the rover to stop and study. The area has been dubbed "Rocknest."

"We now have reached an important phase that will get the first solid samples into the analytical instruments in about two weeks," said Curiosity's mission manager Michael Watkins. "Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission."

To get ready for its first scoops, one of the the rover's wheels scuffed the soil in Rocknest to expose fresh material, NASA reported.

This latest step in Curiosity's mission comes on the heels of NASA's announcement that the rover had found evidence of a "vigorous" thousand-year water flow on the surface of Mars.

It was an important find for NASA, which hoped the nuclear-powered rover could find evidence that was once capable of supporting life.

With the discovery of water, one of the key elements needed to support life, the rover is now looking for other necessary elements, such as carbon in soil or rock fragments.

Curiosity, an SUV-sized rover that landed on Mars in August, is about two months into what scientists hope will be a two-year mission.

While the rover is designed to scoop up soil samples and deliver them into analytical instruments, these first samples won't be analyzed. Instead, the samples picked up over the weekend will be shaken vigorously in the scoop for several hours to clean out the soil handling system.

The scoop sits on the end of Curiosity's 7-foot robotic arm, which also holds a drill, a dust removal tool and an imager.

NASA said that over the the next few weeks, the rover will continue test the ability of the robotic scooper to collect and process soil samples. After the first few samples are scooped, Curiosity will begin delivering samples to its mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy instruments.

It also will use its drill to produce powdered samples from different rocks.

"We're going to take a close look at the particle size distribution in the soil here to be sure it's what we want," said Daniel Limonadi, lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system. "We are being very careful with this first time using the scoop on Mars."

Curiosity, which weighs nearly 2,000 pounds and carries 17 cameras and 10 scientific instruments, has two computers and four processors.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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