The three samples came from the sandy soil at Curiosity’s target site, Glenelg Intrigue, a.k.a. the “promised land,” where three different types of Martian terrain converge.
Curiosity delivered the samples to the rover’s observation tray on its 70th sol, October 16, 2012. Rover then shook some soil inside sample-processing chambers to scrub internal surfaces of residue carried from Earth.
On its 71st sol, rover’s robotic arm deposited a sieved sample of soil, about the size of a baby aspirin, into the inlet funnel of the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument for analysis of the soil’s mineral content. CheMin will direct X-ray beams as fine as a human hair through the powdered material to determine its mineral content.
Researchers were perplexed when they found a half-inch chunk of bright material in one of the scoops and later identified it as debris from the spacecraft.
More intriguing, though, are the smaller bits of light-toned material retrieved from the second scoop of sample soil. The preliminary assessment is that these smaller, bright particles are native to Martian soil and are not debris from the spacecraft.
Stumped as to how to classify these particles, Curiosity lead scientist at the California Institute of Technology, John Grotzinger, reported that the science team refers to them as “schmutz.”
He continued, “We had a lot of fun with that, labeling them and comparing, but in the end it turns out we really feel this is a different sort of particle.
”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.”
“Schmutz” not withstanding, Curiosity Project Manger Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, refers to the brightly colored shards as “fodder for the mission’s scientific studies.” He says the discovery of the unexpected bright particles focused researchers’ attention on the unknown possibilities of the mission.
“We got to believing there were things around us and began to look at everything through that lens,” he said. “We definitely are more aware of what’s out there now and are more careful about everything we look at.”
Cook explained that the information gained about the rocks and soil at Glenelg Intrigue will help scientists to decide where to finally break out Curiosity’s drill.
Source: NASA website, October 18, 2012 Dailymail Online UK, October 19, 2012 Photo credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS