NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, scooped up its first sample of the planet’s soil Sunday, after picking up evidence two months ago from what scientists believe was an ancient riverbed.
The key evidence of the ancient stream came from images of the size and roundedness of the gravel in and around the bedrock.
Smaller rocks and sand can be transported by wind, but larger rocks require water for transportation, said Billy Pilesky, a Cal State Fullerton geology lab assistant.
CSUF assistant physics professor Joshua Smith added, “I think a lot of scientists agree that it is very likely that Mars was a lot warmer in winter than it is now and probably had an atmosphere that can sustain liquid water, which is the key ingredient for life.”
Scientists believe the wet environment that once existed on Mars formed more than three billion years ago, which is the same estimate for when life began developing on Earth.
Joel Horowitz, research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Labratory working on the Mars rover sampling system, said they received the first images of Curiosity’s sample of the planet’s soil Sunday.
“What we have now is a good understanding of the chemical composition of the soil and also a whole bunch of detailed close-up pictures of the soil,” said Horowitz, which helps build the framework for Curiosity’s mission on Mars.
According to NASA’s Mars Mission press release, researchers plan to assess four goals during its mission, which is about “reconstructing environments and understanding habitability,” Horowitz said.
With the help of the Curiosity’s advanced engineering, researchers will examine the biological potential with analysis of organic and chemical matter. The rover will also send visual images detecting chemical and mineral composition of the planet’s surface. Scientists will also investigate planetary processes applicable to past life on Mars and begin to characterize its surface radiation.
Researchers analyzed photographs of outcrops that show evidence of a former presence of water taken inside Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed Aug. 5.
The rover picked up images of Hottah, an outcrop “that looks like someone jackhammered up a slab of city sidewalk, but it’s really a tilted block of an ancient streambed,” said project scientist John Grotzinger.
During the first 90 days, Curiosity will make its way toward its target site called Glenelg, or the “Rocknest,” located at the base of Gale Crater. The Rocknest contains three types of terrain, including layered bedrock, which scientists believe is a likely place where water may have collected.
For the next few weeks, Curiosity will continue to scoop up sand and run it through its system of removing any object subjected to the Earth’s atmosphere.
The rover’s ultimate destination lies in a 3-mile high mountain in the middle of the Gale Crater known as Mount Sharp, which contains layers of sediment that can potentially hold matter indicating former life on Mars.
Curiosity will then feed samples of the sand to the lab by using its X-ray feature to reveal its mineral structure and chemical makeup.
Curiosity’s carries several built-in analytical instruments which include a six-wheeled mobility, sample acquisition, a 7-foot-long robotic arms, a laser to break down rocks, navigation using stereo imaging, a radioisotopic power source, avionics, software, telecommunications and thermal control.
“We’ve never carried this many instruments on a spacecraft to the surface of another planet before,” Horowitz said. “It’s like we packed up a terrestrial geochemistry lab and brought it with us to Mars.”
The jeep-sized robotic geologist, according to Smith, “moves rather slowly and is capable of moving across a very rough terrain and taking high-resolution photos.”
This will provide researchers with further knowledge about Mars with close-up inspections and analysis of rock, soil and atmosphere samples.
This $2.6 billion mission on Mars is expected to last two years. If the rover is still operating by the end of two years, the mission will resume.
“The landing of Mars rover was one the most impressive displays of human accomplishment that I’ve seen,” Smith said. “I hope that, that it’s actually not the most exciting thing that the rover produces.”