THE Curiosity rover is preparing to scoop its first sample of Martian soil.

The vehicle, which landed on the Red Planet in August, has driven up to a pile of sandy material that mission scientists have dubbed “Rocknest”.

This weekend, the robot will dig into the ground with its clamshell-shaped trowel, with the aim first of cleaning the mechanism of earthly contamination.

Later, it will repeat the task and deliver an aspirin-sized measure of sand to onboard labs for analysis.

Nasa engineers have cautioned that the whole process will be long and drawn out. The machinery involved is complex and the team says it needs time to learn how best to operate it.

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), will very likely be stationary at Rocknest for a couple of weeks while the scoop tests are carried out.

And, as with some of the earlier science experiments conducted by the rover, the scoop results - when they come - are expected to be fairly mundane. The sand is very probably just the product of weathered basalt, the ubiquitous volcanic rock on Mars’ surface.

The team is more concerned about getting its sample handling procedures right than making significant new discoveries.

A key objective of the first excavations will be to thoroughly clean the internal mechanisms of the robotic arm tool that does the digging.

It is called Chimra, or Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis. –BBC