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Which Grain of Sand Will Tell Us the Most About Mars?

Illustration for article titled Which Grain of Sand Will Tell Us the Most About Mars?

Now that the Mars Curiosity Rover has reached the Namib Dune, the next challenge is figuring out where to collect samples. This is the first time a robot has visited a sand dune on another planet, so we want to get this right.

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The Curiosity Rover will be cautiously edging onto the dune, and even use its wheels to scuff open a fresh surface to examine. But we don’t want to send the robotic explorer too deep into the shifting sands for fear it’ll get stuck, a fate that ultimately trapped the older Spirit rover.

After a day poring over the most recent images from the rover, the science team picked their target. Curiosity will sample a sharp-crested ripple. This will hopefully give them access to both fine and coarse grains. The specific ripple they’re targeting looks relatively dust-free. Best of all, the ripple is located so that Curiosity can be sturdily oriented when approaching it for a sample, and not risk getting eaten by an unstable dune.

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Curiosity is continuing to take self-portraits to establish context before disturbing the dune. On Sol 1217 (which is January 8, 2016 here on Earth), the rover collected a Mastcam mosaic, and took more self-portraits of its deck to check for any fine windblown sand. In the coming days, it’ll roll forward towards the target ripple, and twist its right wheel to make the long-awaited scuff. Curiosity will keep sending home photographs of the region (including the target) to provide lots of data for detecting any changes as its humans work out exactly what happens next.

The long-awaited scuff was supposed to happen this weekend, but didn’t for yet-to-be-determined reasons. The science team is now faced with the dual challenge of identifying the error, and still getting observations done without moving the rover.

It seems a bit ridiculous that it takes days to do something as straightforward as sample a sand dune, but it’d be even more ridiculous to needlessly ensnarl our robot with no aid for literally hundreds of millions of miles. Instead, the slow but inexorable march towards new science continues.

[AGU Martian Chronicles]

Top image: Namib Dune as seen by the Curiosity Rover on Sol 1216. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

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“It seems a bit ridiculous that it takes days to do something as straightforward as sample a sand dune, but it’d be even more ridiculous to needlessly ensnarl our robot with no aid for literally hundreds of millions of miles.”

And even on its tiny operating budget, NASA continues to make progressively better robots which can act more and more autonomously, needing less and less micromanagement from us. One way or another, there will be geologists on Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System.

Either the robots will get so smart and good, it will be nearly as good as having a human geologist there or we’ll send humans out there.

One way or another.