By: SPACE.com Staff
Published: 10/09/2012 04:09 PM EDT on SPACE.com
A small piece of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has apparently fallen off into the Red Planet dirt, scientists announced today (Oct. 9).
Curiosity team members spotted the odd bright object on Sunday (Oct. 7) while studying photos of the rover's first Martian soil-scooping activity. Curiosity then spent much of Monday photographing the scrap further, allowing researchers to determine that it likely came off the 1-ton rover — though they're still not sure what exactly it is, or if its absence will affect Curiosity's mission appreciably.
"The rover team's assessment is that the bright object is something from the rover, not Martian material," mission team members wrote in an update today. "It appears to be a shred of plastic material, likely benign, but it has not been definitively identified."
Researchers will continue to investigate the object for another day before deciding whether or not to resume processing of the soil sample, which remains in Curiosity's scoop, the update added.
Yesterday's close-up photos of the mysterious sliver were shot with the Remote Micro-Imager of Curiosity's Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam. The rover will likely take more pictures of its surroundings today with its workhorse Mast Camera, researchers said.
This past weekend's activities were the first test of Curiosity's soil-scooping system, which is located at the end of its 7-foot (2.1 meters) robotic arm.
Samples from the scoop are designed to be dropped into two instruments on the rover's body known as Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin). SAM and CheMin are two of the main tools Curiosity will use to determine if Mars could ever have supported microbial life.
The first few scoops are meant to clean out Curiosity's sampling system, to ensure that any material delivered to SAM and CheMin in the future is purely Martian, without any oily residues left over from the rover's construction and assembly here on Earth, researchers have said.
The $2.5 billion Mars rover Curiosity landed inside the Red Planet's huge Gale Crater on Aug. 5 and is expected to spend the next two years or more roving about its Martian environs. At about the size of Mini Cooper car, Curiosity is the largest robotic rover ever sent to explore another planet.
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Curiosity at Work on Mars
This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration.
Daybreak At Gale Crater
This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light.
Curiosity Launch Vehicle
The Atlas V 541 vehicle was selected for the Mars Science Laboratory mission because it has the right liftoff capability for the heavy weight requirements of the rover and its spacecraft.
Mars Science Laboratory Spacecraft During Cruise
This is an artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during its cruise phase between launch and final approach to Mars. The spacecraft includes a disc-shaped cruise stage (on the left) attached to the aeroshell. The spacecraft's rover (Curiosity) and descent stage are tucked inside the aeroshell.
Curiosity Approaching Mars
The Curiosity rover is safely tucked inside the spacecraft's aeroshell. The mission's approach phase begins 45 minutes before the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere. It lasts until the spacecraft enters the atmosphere.
Curiosity Inside Aeroshell
The Curiosity rover and the spacecraft's descent stage are safely tucked inside the aeroshell at this point. The aeroshell includes a heat shield (on the right, facing in the direction of travel through the atmosphere) and backshell. The diameter of the aeroshell is 14.8 feet (4.5 meters), the largest ever used for a mission to Mars.
Mars Science Laboratory Guided Entry At Mars
The mission's entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars. During the approximately seven minutes of EDL, the spacecraft decelerates from a velocity of about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second) at the top of the atmosphere, to stationary on the surface.
Deceleration of Mars Science Laboratory in Martian Atmosphere
This artist's concept depicts the interaction of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft with the upper atmosphere of Mars during the entry, descent and landing of the Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface.
Mars Science Laboratory Parachute
This is an artist's concept of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover parachute system.
Curiosity While On Parachute
This is an artist's concept of NASA's Curiosity rover tucked inside the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's backshell while the spacecraft is descending on a parachute toward Mars. The parachute is attached to the top of the backshell. In the scene depicted here, the spacecraft's heat shield has already been jettisoned.
Curiosity And Descent Stage
This is an artist's concept of the rover and descent stage for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during the final minute before the rover, Curiosity, touches down on the surface of Mars.
Curiosity's Sky Crane Maneuver
The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the Mars Science Laboratory mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover Curiosity safe and sound on the surface of Mars.
Curiosity Touching Down
This artist's concept depicts the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface.
A Moment After Curiosity's Touchdown
This artist's concept depicts the moment immediately after NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface.
Curiosity Mars Rover
This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.
In this picture, the mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player. This mast supports two remote-sensing instruments: the Mast Camera, or "eyes," for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm; and, the ChemCam instrument, which is a laser that vaporizes material from rocks up to about 9 meters (30 feet) away and determines what elements the rocks are made of.
Mars Rover Curiosity