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Mars rover gives its first brushoff

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

This image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the patch of rock cleaned by the first use of the rover's wire-bristle brush on Jan. 6.

NASA's Curiosity rover used the wire-bristle brush on the end of its 7-foot-long robotic arm for the first time over the weekend, to sweep the dust off a patch of rock wide enough to put a soda can on.

Sunday's use of the motorized Dust Removal Tool, or DRT, marks yet another first for the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, which began operations on the Red Planet with Curiosity's landing last August. The mission team selected an easy target for the tryout: a flat patch of rock known as "Ekwir_1" in the Yellowknife Bay area of Mars' Gale Crater, where Curiosity has been spending the past few weeks.

"We wanted to be sure we had an optimal target for the first use," Diana Trujillo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mission's activity lead for the DRT, explained in today's status report. "We need to place the instrument within less than half an inch of the target without putting the hardware at risk. We needed a flat target, one that wasn't rough, one that was covered with dust. The results certainly look good."

The area cleaned by the DRT measured about 1.85 inches by 2.44 inches (47 by 62 millimeters). In addition to the brush, the end of Curiosity's robotic arm is equipped with a percussive drill, a close-up camera known as the Mars Hand Lens Imager, the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer and a dirt scooper.

The rover team is evaluating several rocks in the area as potential targets for the first use of the drill sometime in the next few weeks. Brushing off potential targets will be part of the preparation for that drilling operation.

The primary aim of Curiosity's two-year mission is to sample rocks, soil and the atmosphere at Mars' Gale Crater to determine whether the chemical requirements for life could have been present there billions of years ago.

More about Curiosity's mission:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.