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NASA’s Curiosity heads to Yellowknife Bay; Mountain climb is next

NASA’s Curiosity rover began its latest mission on Mars, traveling to a region dubbed “Yellowknife Bay.”

The one-tone rover used its percussive drill to collect a sample from the interior of a rock, a feat never before attempted on Mars, NASA officials said in a statement released over the holidays.

The rover will zap a number of rocks in the area with its high-powered laser, allowing it to collect the powdered-rock sample. The powdered rock will be sieved and portioned by a sample-processing mechanism on the rover’s arm, which will then be analyzed by instruments inside Curiosity, according to NASA.

NASA’s latest mission was met with a series of hurdles. The space agency spent a number of days collecting data in an effort to determine the best course of descending the steep slopes of the region. The route took the rover close to an outcrop called “Shaler,” where scientists used Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument and Mast Camera (Mastcam) to assess the region’s rock composition and observe its layering. NASA said the area contains some of the strangest rock formations yet discovered and the rover was forced to end Monday’s drive nearly 30 percent shorter than planned for the day when it detected a slight difference between two calculations of its tilt.

“The rover is traversing across terrain different from where it has driven earlier, and responding differently,” said Rick Welch, mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California “We’re making progress, though we’re still in the learning phase with this rover, going a little slower on this terrain than we might wish we could.”

Yellowknife Bay, according to NASA, is the temporary destination for first use of Curiosity’s rock-powdering drill, before the mission turns southwestward for driving to its main destination on the slope of Mount Sharp.

Tuesday’ mission follows in the wake of the rover utilizing its full array of instruments to analyze the Martian soil for the first time. NASA officials sparked excitement in mid-December, saying initial analysis of the soil sample showed a complex chemistry that contained water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients.

“We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater,” SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said at the time.

With the holidays coming to a close, NASA’s rover has been on a bit of a press relations tour. The rover crew has teamed up with the mobile application Foursquare in an effort to promote the sciences.  Users of the Foursquare social media platform can earn the badge by following NASA and checking in at a NASA visitor center or venue categorized as a science museum or planetarium, according to a statement released by the U.S. space agency.

Curiosity also took time New Year’s Eve to release a message to the crowd in Times Square, saying it looks forward to sharing its discoveries in 2013.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission and its Curiosity rover for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.