The 1,982-pound explorer is now at a spot in Mars' Gale Crater called Rocknest, preparing to use its robotic scoop for soil samples scientists say they hope will provide information crucial to the project's central mission: determining whether there were ever conditions on the Red Planet amenable to life.
"What makes Curiosity different from all other rovers is her ability to acquire samples of Mars soil and rock, and to analyze them in her onboard laboratories," Ashwin Vasavada at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times.
"This is an exciting week for us," said Vasavada, the deputy project scientist for the Curiosity mission, "since we're just days away from doing just those things for the first time."
Curiosity will first make two scoops just for cleaning out any last remnants of Earth material that might be clinging to the scoop, he said.
"We've found a nice thick pile of typical Mars sand, chosen because of its familiar properties and its ability to clean out the hardware," Vasavada said."
"Even in our cleanest assembly buildings, it was not possible to keep minute amounts of oils and other chemicals off of Curiosity. The sand and some vigorous shaking should remove the last bits of Earth from the tools and get them ready to study Mars like we've never studied it before."
The rover will scoop twice, shake the dirt "thoroughly ... to scrub the internal surfaces" and then dump the soil, NASA said.
Curiosity's instruments will analyze the fourth sample of soil from the scoop to identify chemical ingredients, it said.
The whole process will be long and drawn out, NASA engineers cautioned, because the machinery involved is complex and the Curiosity team says it needs time to learn the best way to operate it.