NASA's Curiosity rover is at a standstill, but thankfully it's not because its wheels are stuck. The rover is stopped for science: It's arrived at a site called Rocknest, an eight-by-16-foot area with ample loose material. Mission scientist have decided to stop here on the way to Mars ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. The rover's ability to perform chemical analysis on rocks and soil will reveal if the ingredients for life were ever abundant on Mars.
Before delivering its first sample for analysis, Curiosity will test its instruments. Part of this preliminary testing was of the surface material, which Curiosity did by waggling its wheel. On Wednesday, it scuffed away a patch of soil to expose the fresh material underneath, which is what you see pictured above.
Next will come the scoop. Curiosity will start with two small scoops of soil that it will shake inside its sample-processing chambers before spitting the soil back out. This is how Curiosity cleans the chambers. It's a similar quality assurance practice to what's done in geochemical laboratories here on Earth.
The third scoop will be the first delivered to the rover's instruments. After stopping in an observation tray for photographic inspection, the soil will be transferred to CheMin, the mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy instrument. Contents of a fourth scoop will be split between CheMin and SAM, the sample analysis at Mars instrument.
Once Curiosity is done at Rocknest — sometime around sol 70 (we're currently on sol 56) — it will start on the last 100 yards of its drive to Glenelg, where it will use its drill for the first time. While pictures of the rover and panoramas are great, we're starting to get into the science that makes this mission really exciting.