The Curiosity rover leaves a print in the sandy soil of Mars. (Photo : Reuters)
The Mars rover Curiosity is going to play in the sand for eight hours this weekend. Then it will make a mud pie. Sort of.
The childish antics actually serve an important scientific purpose. Curiosity is preparing to scoop its first bit of Martian sand, eat it, and then spit it out in an attempt to clean its measurement apparatus of any debris and contamination that may have hitched a ride from Earth.
"We effectively use it to rinse our mouth three times and then spit out," said Daniel Limonadi, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Curiosity surface sampling phase lead.
The abrasion will clean off the Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis, or Chimra.
"We will take a scoop bite, we will vibrate that sand on all the different surfaces inside Chimra to effectively sand blast those surfaces, and then we dump all that material out; and we rinse and repeat three times to finish cleaning everything out," said Limonadi.
After Chimra has been carefully scrubbed, it will be ready to take a sample of Martian soil, about the size of an aspirin, to analyze.
The team at the JPL is taking every precaution, as the previous Mars rover, Phoenix, had trouble sifting through its soil samples. "Phoenix had a relatively uncontrolled drop off capability; they had just the one scoop and that scoop had to do everything," said Limonadi to BBC News.
"We use gravity and vibration to get things into little parts of Chimra that make very controlled volumes of portions for us to drop off."
In the two months Curiosity has been on Mars, it has trekked across about a quarter-mile of the Martian landscape. Last week it found smooth, rounded rocks that proved there was once deep, running water on the Martian surface.