When small and bright can get you discarded

Curiosity remains at Rocknest, its resting place for around the last couple of weeks, continuing with the scooping / CHIMRA / sample operations. When we last left the MSL rover at the end of my last round-up of news, command has been sent to Curiosity to prepare the way for a second sample scoop operation (Sol 65, October 11th).

Originally, the material from this scoop was earmarked for use in further CHIMRA cleaning exercises, designed to “scrub” the insides of the sample processing system clean of any remaining Earth-based contaminants, prior to samples being filtered through it ready for delivery to Curiosity’s on-board analysis systems.

While a sample scoop of material was collected on Sol 66 (October 12th), operations were brought to a halt when images returned by the rover revealed a bright object – another possible FOD (Foreign Object Debris) within the hole created by the scoop when gathering the sample.

The potential FOD, imaged by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) within the scoop-hole from the second sample collection operation. This image shows an area some 5 centimetres (2 inches) across

As reported in my last update, a small, bright FOD was imaged close to the area of the first sample scoop, and after examination using MAHLI, the mission team determined it was most likely debris which had fallen from the rover itself – possibly a tiny fragment of wiring insulation which had originally fallen from the Descent Stage and lodged on the rover. Because of this, mission scientists were concerned that the object seen in the sample hole might be further debris from the rover itself and that some might have been collected by the scoop. It was therefore decided to abandon the sample on Sol 67, rather than risk having contaminants enter CHIMRA.

However, subsequent additional analysis of the object seen in the scoop hole showed that it was in fact embedded in the Martian soil, and therefore unlikely to have fallen from the rover. Closer examination of the ground immediately around the sample spots recorded more, and similar, bright objects, further pointing to the matter in the scope hole being of Martian origin.

These bright objects, possibly result of small pieces of material shearing apart to reveal their unweathered interior faces, will likely be the subject of further study, together with the original FOD seen on Sol 61. “We plan to learn more both about the spacecraft material and about the smaller, bright particles,” said Curiosity Project Manager Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. “We will finish determining whether the spacecraft material warrants concern during future operations. The native Mars particles become fodder for the mission’s scientific studies.”

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