The rover has arrived at a special region believed to have formed as Mars’ climate was drying.
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has landed in the "sulfate-bearing unit," a long-sought section of Mount Sharp rich in salty minerals, after travelling this summer through a tiny, sand-lined pass.
Scientists believe that as streams and ponds dried up over billions of years ago, the minerals were left behind. These minerals provide fascinating hints as to how - and why - the environment of the Red Planet went from being more Earth-like to the frozen desert it is now, assuming the hypothesis is right.
Scientists have been waiting a long time to observe this terrain up close because the minerals were discovered by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter years before Curiosity landed in 2012.
The rover quickly found a wide variety of rock types and evidence of previous water, including popcorn-textured nodules and salty minerals like sodium chloride, calcium sulphate, and magnesium sulphate (Epsom salt is one type) (ordinary table salt).
It wasn't an easy decision, but they ultimately went with a rock known as "Canaima" for the mission's 36th drill sample. The crew had to take into account the hardware of the rover in addition to scientific issues.
To crush rock samples for analysis, Curiosity utilizes a percussive, or jackhammering, rotary drill at the end of its 7-foot (2-meter) arm. The team recently came to the conclusion that some harder rocks may require too much hammering to drill properly due to worn brakes on the arm.
As we always do before a drill, we cleared the area of dust before using the drill to puncture Canaima's top layer. The lack of scratch marks or indentations was a sign that drilling might be challenging, according to Kathya Zamora-Garcia, the new project manager for Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
"We halted to see if there was any danger to our arm from that. We were at ease taking a sample of the Canaima because to the new drilling algorithm, which was developed to reduce the need of percussion. It turns out there was no need for percussion."
The Chemical and Minerology instrument (CheMin) and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument are looking forward to analyzing portions of the sample (SAM).
Curiosity traversed hazardous terrain on its way to the sulfate-rich region, including, this past August, the sand-filled "Paraitepuy Pass," which winds between tall hills. The rover finally arrived at its target after more than a month of safe navigation.
While Curiosity's wheels, which still have plenty of life left in them, can be damaged by jagged rocks, sand can be just as dangerous and might cause the rover to become stuck if the wheels lose grip. Rover drivers must proceed cautiously through these places.
Curiosity had to be carefully orientated in order to point its antennas toward Earth and maintain communication with orbiters passing overhead since the hills impeded its view of the sky.
The team was rewarded for taking such chances with some of the mission's most spectacular vistas, which the rover shot in a panorama on August 14 using its Mast Camera, or Mastcam.
Curiosity's science operations coordinator, Elena Amador-French of JPL, who oversees cooperation between the science and engineering teams, remarked that "we would get new photographs every morning and simply be in wonder." The sand ridges were breathtaking. Perfect small rover tracks are visible on them. The cliffs were very stunning, and we were able to get quite close to them.
But this new area has its own difficulties: The more rugged terrain makes it more difficult to locate a location where all six of Curiosity's wheels are on firm ground, despite its strong scientific case. Engineers won't risk unstowing the arm if the rover isn't steady for fear that it might hit the angular rocks.
More About Curiosity
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is run by Caltech in Pasadena, California, is in charge of the Curiosity project. For NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, JPL is in charge of leading the mission. Mastcam was created by and is run by Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.
Edited by: Ankit Biswas (LinkedIn)