Last week, Curiosity saw a bright object on Mars soil which turned out to be plastic that fell from the probe. But now NASA’s skilled rover took three scoops from a small Martian sand dune and found several bright particles in it. Scientists say that they are probably indigenous Martian mineral flecks.
Curiosity was in an area called Rocknest for several weeks now, where it was sampling the Martian soil, practicing using its scoop and analysis instruments. The plan was to take three scoops and send the sand through the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) tool to clean it of any material that may have brought from Earth.
In the second scoop, “we began to see some bright flecks in the scoop areas,” said geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, and after last week’s plastic encounter, Curiosity’s science team worried the new particles might be of earth origin. Since they turned up in scoop holes, however, the granules must have been buried in the subsurface. They likely came from larger minerals that broke down. They might also represent the product of some geological soil process that generates a bright but unknown mineral.
“The science team started calling them schmutz,” said Grotzinger. “We can’t rule out that they’re something man-made but we don’t think that they are.”
In coming weeks, Curiosity will position its high-resolution ChemCam to get a close-up look at the schmutz. In the meantime, the rover completed its three scoops and has delivered a sample of Martian soil to its internal CheMin instrument. It will determine what minerals occur in this area.