A Mars rock that Curiosity will hit with its Chemistry and Camera instrument. (Reuters)
Cape Canaveral, Aug. 18 (Reuters): Nasa yesterday unveiled plans for its Mars rover Curiosity’s first road trip, part of a two-year quest to determine if the planet most like Earth could ever have hosted microbial life, scientists said.
The one-tonne nuclear-powered robotic science lab landed in a large crater near Mars’s equator on August 6 to search for organic materials and other chemistry considered key to life. The rover’s primary target is Mount Sharp, a mound of layered rock 5km high rising from the floor of Gale Crater.
Before beginning the 7-km trek to the base of Mount Sharp, a journey expected to take months, the six-wheeled Curiosity will visit a relatively nearby site named “Glenelg”, which caught scientists’ interest because it includes three types of terrain.
The name was selected from a list of about 100 rock formations in northern Canada. Scientists realised Glenelg was a palindrome — a word that reads the same backward — and particularly suited as the name for Curiosity’s first destination since the rover will have to come back through the site to head to Mount Sharp.
The road trip to Glenelg depends in part on how well Curiosity cruises through the rest of its instrument checkout. Early next week, the rover will test-fire its powerful laser to pulverise a bit of bedrock uncovered by exhaust from Curiosity’s descent engine.
A small telescope will then analyse the vapourised material to determine what minerals it contains. The combined system, known as Chemistry & Camera, or ChemCam, is designed to make about 14,000 measurements throughout Curiosity’s mission, said lead instrument scientist Roger Wiens, with the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“There’s a high-power laser that briefly projects several megawatts onto a pinhead-size spot on the surface of Mars,” Wiens said. “It creates a plasma, or a little ball of flame or spark.”
Dubbed N165, the object is not expected to have any science value, but should show ChemCam is ready for serious work. “I’d probably guess this is a typical Mars basalt — basaltic rocks making up a large fraction of all the igneous rocks on Mars,” Wiens said.
“A basalt, which is also common under the ocean on Earth, typically has 48 per cent silicon dioxide and percent amounts of iron, calcium and magnesium, and sodium and potassium oxides as well. We’re not expecting any surprises,” said the Los Alamos researcher.
The telescope, which can observe the flash from up to about 7 metres away, then splits the light into its component wavelengths.