The Mars Science Laboratory mission has experienced many "firsts" during its launch, transit, landing, and initial sols on the surface of Mars. The first photograph, the first sample analysis, the first drive: each one is a tense, nerve-fraying moment that brings alternate mission trajectories into stark contrast. If it works, Curiosity is on a path toward discovery, brimming with scientific potential. If it doesn't, well, the future might not be so rosy...
Sol 61 marked another headlining "first" - the initial deployment of Curiosity's scooping tool. The scoop is part of the rover's Sample Acquisition, Processing, and Handling (SASPaH) subsystem, a suite of instruments, tubes, and gears that is attached to the end of a mechanical arm. This is where the martian exterior meets Curiosity's interior, a critical interface for the mission's scientific objectives. If SAM is ever to detect organic molecules in the soil, if CheMin is to examine the mineralogy of the dust grains, then you need to be able to deliver surface materials to the instruments.
At 2 p.m. on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the SASPaH engineers huddled around a computer in mission control to see how their instrument had performed. They were waiting for the daily data downlink, which would contain post-mortem photographic evidence of the scoop's success or failure. The engineers even had a uniform for the occasion: SASPaH t-shirts with a schematic of the scoop's activity on the back titled "7 years of terror". It was a playful response to the Entry, Descent, and Landing team's "7 minutes of terror" during Curiosity's tense landing two months ago, an allusion to the years of race-against-the-clock testing and development that had led to this moment.
At 2:20, the pictures appeared, and cheers rippled through the room, tempered by a cautious examination of the photographs. The scoop appeared to have worked flawlessly and was full of fine dark soil, not a grain out of place. A wider shot captured the adjacent sand dune with a scoop-sized chunk taken out of it.
Liz Duffy, a mechanical engineer and a member of the SASPaH team, was equal parts surprised and ecstatic. "This is even more perfect than we've been seeing in testing. We would often see sample end up in this little gap here," she says, pointing to a ridge near the scoop's hinge on her computer screen, "or there'd be too much sample on the lip."
The scoop aims for 30 cubic centimeters of soil; the initial run collected 26. "It looks awesome, and this makes it very easy to compare to the models of how we think the material will flow through the rest of the system," Duffy beams. The SASPaH engineers don't have much time to rest as they prepare for additional scoops and sample processing procedures in the coming days. But for now, another successful first is in the bag.