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February 09, 2013

A Mars first! Curiosity drills into bedrock

Posted in: Science

The drill hole by Curiosity is seen at center. In preparation for the center hole, Curiosity drilled the shallower hole at right, but the sample was taken from the deeper hole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity used its Mast Camera (Mastcam) to take the images combined into this mosaic of the drill area, called John Klein. "Drill" shows where the rover did its first sample drilling. The mosaic shows the four targets considered for drilling. At "Brock Inlier," data from the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) and images from the Mars Hand Lens imager (MAHLI) were collected. The target "Wernecke" was brushed by the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) with complementary APXS, MAHLI, and Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) analyses. Target "Thundercloud" was the subject of the drill checkout test known as "percuss on rock." The target Drill was interrogated by APXS, MAHLI and ChemCam. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

This rectangular version of a self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Feb. 3. The rover is at the patch of flat outcrop called John Klein. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

For the first time, a robot has drilled into a rock on Mars and collected a sample, and scientists are patting themselves on the back.  The likelihood of high-fives also is extremely high.

The Curiosity rover has extended its robotic arm and used the drill carried there to bore a hole 0.63 inches wide and 2.5 inches deep into John Klein, as the Martian rock was dubbed. Within that hole, scientists believe, is evidence of the wet environments that existed on Mars eons ago.

But the successful use of the drill alone has scientists in a tizzy. This means that Curiosity is “a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a news release.

“This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August,” he said.

Twitter geeks were applauding:  “Holey Mars exploration Batman!” tweeted Sustainable2.

Mission project manager Richard Cook said in January that the drilling was the most significant engineering that the team has done since landing.

As the Los Angeles Times’ Amina Khan reported, Cook said the terrain was a big unknown and, thus, a big challenge. The area Curiosity rolled into is known as Yellowknife Bay, a place very different from the landing site at Gale Crater.

“It’s like we entered a whole different world,” said mission lead scientist John Grotzinger.

Developing the tools to tackle “unpredictable rocks” in unknown terrain required a lot of painstaking work beforehand, said Louise Jandura in Saturday’s news release.

Jandura, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge, said, “To get to the point of making this hole in a  rock on Mars, we made eight drills and bored more than 1,200 holes in 20 types of rock on Earth.”

Now, for the analysis.  On the ground, controllers will orchestrate the steps to process the sample.  The powder created during the drilling travels up flues on the drill bit.  Chambers in the bit assembly hold the powder until it is transferred to the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis device. But you can call it CHIMRA.   Inside the sample-handling device, the powder is vibrated across a sieve that screens out the all but particles six-thousandths of an inch or smaller. Portions of the sieved sample fall through ports into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments, NASA says.

Then the detailed analysis starts.

By the way, the rock targeted in this momentous Martian occasion was named in honor of Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager John Klein, who died in 2011.

– Amy Hubbard

@AmyTheHub

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