This past week, NASA’s Curiosity rover spent quite a bit of its time happily playing in the sand – on Mars. In December 2016, Curiosity reached a new frontier on Mars – the Bagnold Dunes. The dunes are located on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp (officially given the rather geeky name, Aeolis Mons), a mountain at the center of the Gale Crater, and feature a landscape unlike anything Curiosity has come across before. In fact, in some photos, the sandy dunes and mountainous Mars terrain in the background look quite earthly.
Here is Curiosity earlier in the year. You can see the dunes in the distance as Curiosity makes it way toward them.
The dune to the left of Curiosity is Namib Dune which the rover will study first. In the distance, you can see Mount Sharp (red arrow). Mount Sharp was the mission’s primary objective. Before reaching the mountain, NASA scientists believed it to be made of sand, possibly rock, and eh, maybe cheese. When it was reached on September 11, 2014, it was found to be made of
cheese eroded sedimentary layers.
One of the first things Curiosity did when reaching the sands, was dig its toes into them (I mean, come on, who doesn’t like the feeling of sand squishing between their metal tracks). Once Curiosity was satisfied that the dunes posed no pressing danger (of getting stuck), it began its work.
Curiosity digs into the sand to gather samples. The sand is strained through two different mesh screens (one with larger pores that are .04 inches wide and another with much smaller pores, just .006 inches wide). The different sizes of sand granules are then delivered to Curiosity’s internal chemistry-analysis lab where it is analyzed.
Below is a closeup photo of some of the larger grains of sand that Curiosity rover dug out of the Namib Dune. Even though these grains are too large for Curiosity’s internal chemistry lab, it will still study them using its ChemCam and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer instruments (two of Reeko’s favorite pieces of lab equipment).