This image provided by NASA shows shows a Martian rock outcrop near the landing site of the rover Curiosity thought to be the site of an ancient streambed, next to similar rocks shown on earth. Photo: AP/NASA
WASHINGTON: NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity, is parked at a sandpit and ready to scoop up soil to clean and test its geological sampling hardware, NASA says.
These will be the first solid samples put through Curiosity's collection and processing tool set - a task central to determining whether Mars ever harboured life, NASA officials said.
Project team members said they were excited to get started, but planned to proceed with caution. ''Because this is such an important capability, kind of the keystone of the rover mission, we're being deliberately, incredibly careful,'' said the lead systems engineer, Daniel Limonadi.
Step one will be to use sand to scrape off the earth-born film that would taint any future testing.
''On Earth, even though we make this hardware super, squeaky clean when it's assembled and worked on, by virtue of just being on Earth, you get an oily film that is impossible to avoid,'' Mr Limonadi said.
To remove it, Curiosity will vigorously vibrate sand across the instrument over several hours.
The process will be repeated three times over the next 10 days, with stops between to verify everything is going well.
Before taking that first scoop, tentatively scheduled for Saturday, scientists will analyse images of the sand.
After cleaning, Curiosity will scoop up its first sample for geological analysis.
After sampling at its current location, dubbed ''Rocknest,'' it will travel about 100 metres towards ''Glenelg''.
At that spot, located at an intersection of three types of terrain, NASA experts plan to drill a rock and analyse the content.
Curiosity is on a two-year mission to investigate whether it is possible to live on Mars and to learn whether conditions there might have been able to support life in the past.
The craft landed in Gale Crater on August 6.