NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is using several tools this weekend to take a closer look at a sandstone slab being assessed as a possible drilling target.
If it fits the bills, the target could become Curiosity’s third drilled rock. “Windjana,” named after a gorge in Western Australia, would be the mission’s first drilled rock that is not mudstone.
To determine whether Curiosity should drill at Windjana, engineers have asked the rover to perform a number of tasks, including observations with the camera and X-ray spectrometer located at the end of the its arm and interpretations of composition at different points on the rock with a device that fires laser shots from the rover’s mast.
According to Space.com, Curiosity’s rock-zapping laser is known as ChemCam. This instrument determines the composition of Martian rocks by analyzing the light given off by zapped materials.
If selected, Curiosity’s drill will gather powered sample material from the interior of Windjana. Next, the rover will send some of the sample to onboard laboratory instruments for analysis.
The first two drilled rocks revealed evidence of an ancient lakebed environment with important chemical elements and a chemical energy source that once provided conditions favorable for microbial life.
Scientists hope that drilling at Windjana will offer clues to the cement that holds together the sand-size grains in the rock.
“We want to learn more about the wet process that turned sand deposits into sandstone here,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “What was the composition of the fluids that bound the grains together? That aqueous chemistry is part of the habitability story we’re investigating.”
Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS