NASA Curiosity Rover Back To Work

May 10, 2013 (11:05 AM EDT)

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NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet
NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet
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After taking a four-week break due to a "solar conjunction," NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is preparing to drill and sample a second rock.

Curiosity will travel to the rock in the coming days. The target, dubbed "Cumberland," is located 9 feet west of the first rock the rover drilled back in February. Analysis of the first drilling -- which included gray-colored rock, clay minerals and mudstone -- found carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. All these chemical ingredients suggest that conditions needed to support life once existed on Mars. Once analyzed, the second rock sample could confirm the initial findings that the Red Planet's environment was indeed favorable to microbial life.

Cumberland and the first rock, called "John Klein," seem to be very similar. Both rocks are flat and have pale veins and a bumpy surface. They are embedded in a layer of rock on the floor of a shallow depression known as "Yellowknife Bay."

[ Agency will invest $105 million to develop asteroid-mining technology. Read more at NASA Launches Asteroid Research Mission. ]

NASA scientists, however, have observed some differences that could provide more answers about the planet's past. Cumberland appears to have more erosion-resistant granules, which cause surface bumps. These bumps are clumps of minerals, formed when water formerly soaked the rock, according to NASA. "We know there is some cross-contamination from the previous sample each time. For the Cumberland sample, we expect to have most of that cross-contamination come from a similar rock, rather than from very different soil," said Dawn Sumner, a planner for Curiosity's science team at the University of California at Davis, in a written statement.

Curiosity landed on Mars inside Gale Crater in August 2012. Since, the SUV-like rover has been exploring the Red Planet by taking samples, snapping photos and sending updates back to Earth. But its time there hasn't exactly been problem-free. Curiosity's A-side computer suffered a memory glitch in February, causing the project team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to use a backup system and put the rover into safe mode for two days. Then in March, Curiosity experienced a second on-board computer problem, again going into safe mode. The glitches had put the rover's scientific observations on hold for more than three weeks.

Last month, NASA temporarily limited scientific observations by Curiosity as Mars passed behind the sun in a setup known as a solar conjunction. The sun appeared between Earth and Mars throughout April and could have blocked or corrupted commands sent from Earth. The rover continued to monitor Martian terrain during the break, but the team did not send any new commands.

Now that engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have finished upgrading Curiosity's operating software following the break, the rover is ready to get rolling again. After drilling the second rock in Yellowknife Bay and completing a few nearby explorations, the vehicle will drive toward the base of Mount Sharp, a 3-mile mountain inside Gale Crater.

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