For Mars rover Curiosity, at last, it's dinnertime. On the menu: dirt.

It's period of painstaking preparations over, the Mars rover Curiosity has at long last ingested a sample of soil for analysis by its on-board chemistry lab. That's what it came 352 million miles for.

Courtesy of JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NASA/AP
This photo taken Oct. 15, shows part of the small pit or bite created when Mars rover Curiosity collected its second scoop of Martian soil at a sandy patch called 'Rocknest.' The bright particle near the center of this image was assessed by the mission's science team to be native Martian material rather than spacecraft debris.

After 70 days on Mars, NASA's rover Curiosity finally is doing what it's paid the big bucks to do: Eat dirt.

In a mission where progress so far is being measured in an excruciating series of baby steps, the rover has for the first time moved a soil sample from the Martian surface to CheMin – one of two mini laboratories inside Curiosity's chassis that are expected to reveal the minerals that comprise the red planet's ubiquitous dust.

Such a seemingly simple feat has been a long time coming, notes John Grotzinger, a planetary geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the Mars Science Laboratory's project scientist.

Researchers have measured soil properties beginning with the Viking landers in the mid 1970s and with each lander since – each in different locations. This has yielded the observation that "there's something about the soil so far that's been very generic to Mars," he says.

"What's really exciting about this sample that just got dumped into CheMin" and later will be scrutinized by a second lab package on the rover "is that they are going to be able to analyze once and for all the mineral composition" of this material "that swirls around the planet," he says.

It's the first test of CheMin's ability to uncover the elements in the soil grains and identify minerals in them following the rover's 352-million-mile, nearly nine-month journey to Mars. The mission's goal is to determine if Gale Crater and its towering, central Mt. Sharp could have hosted microbial life early in the planet's history.

Central to that task is the ability to deliver samples to CheMin and the second internal lab package, SAM. SAM analyzes gases from the atmosphere and from heated samples of soil and rock to hunt for organics that would signal a hospitable ancient habitat.

To that end, engineers have spent the last two weeks gathering two scoops full of soil to scrub out the inside of the sample delivery system, removing any remaining contaminants from Earth.

The first scrubbing session went well. But engineers aborted the delivery system's second silty "bath" when images of the depression the scoop left in the soil revealed a small, shiny fleck that reminded the team of what it previously dubbed "shmutz" – loose bits of plastic that came from the rover itself.

The sample-delivery system, known as CHIMRA, might not take kindly to ingesting a bit of rover detritus as part of the cleaning process. So, wary that the soil in the scoop itself might hide another piece of shmutz, the team dumped the soil and took a closer look at the shiny fleck in the depression.

After some scientific chin-scratching, a strong consensus emerged among the science team that the fleck actually originated on Mars, Grotzinger says. In a stroke, the fleck shifted from an object of concern to an object of scientific interest.

Sometime in the next few days, the science team will reposition the rover so it can use ChemCam, atop the rover's mast, to zap the fleck with its laser and figure out what it's made of, Dr. Grotzinger says.

The fleck is only about 1 millimeter across. Reseachers speculate that it could be a tiny chip of mineral cleaved by the wind-driven movement of pebbles at the site. Or it could represent a mineral that formed naturally in the space between larger grains of sand and soil.

"It probably represents a science opportunity rather than an engineering threat," Grotzinger said at a briefing Thursday.

Once the team put the fleck on its scientific agenda, it finished up the housekeeping chores with a third scoopful of soil that is now working its way through CheMin. SAM could see its first sample next week.

"The most important thing about our mobile laboratory is that it eats dirt; that's what we live on," Grotzinger says.

And with confirmation that the latest sample has been safely delivered to CheMin, Curiosity's engineers and scientist can now bid the rover bon appetit.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to For Mars rover Curiosity, at last, it's dinnertime. On the menu: dirt.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today