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Video] Just a scoop of dirt, but NASA's celebrating big-time

October 08, 2012|By Amy Hubbard

It was just a scoop of dirt, but NASA scientists applauded more loudly than they had since the Curiosity rover landed on Mars.

Collecting and analyzing the first Martian soil sample is a "huge milestone" in the Curiosity mission, deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada told the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

A primary purpose of this project, after all, is to determine whether there were conditions on Mars at one time that could have fostered microbial life.

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"There was a lot of clapping yesterday, probably the most since landing, when we saw a nice full pile of soil in the scoop," Vasavada said. "It looks and acts a lot like baking flour. And just like any baker, we shook the scoop to make sure we had a nice level spoonful. This also mixes up the soil for us, to ensure a good analysis."

First, the scientists searched images of Mars for "a nice pile of soil," the scientist explained. They found it at a spot in Mars' Gale Crater called Rocknest. On Sunday, they began their work. 

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"Curiosity then scuffed the soil with her wheel to confirm its depth and compactness. After some additional images and chemical data cleared the soil for scooping, the team sent up commands to scoop."

NASA's having fun with this current exercise. The @MarsCuriosityTwitter account, which is from the rover's point of view, tweeted on Sunday: "So excited to dig in! One scoop of regolith ripple, coming right up!"

Monday morning, the rover account tweeted: "Here's the scoop: I like my regolith shaken!"

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