Not content with laser-burning and scrubbing Mars rock, Curiosity has now drilled into a rocky target, exposing the pristine geological bounty inside. This is the first time a robot has carried out a drilling operation on another planet. What’s more, the action of drilling its way into the “John Klein” outcrop has dislodged material near the drill bit (pictured above), exposing a bright vein presumably rich in calcium sulfate.
This preliminary drilling is the culmination of days of preparation and surveys of the target rock. The one-ton rover even tested its lights mounted beside its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera during the Martian nighttime. One set of ultraviolet lights have aided mission scientists to assess whether the rock contains any fluorescent minerals. The rover’s robotic arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) was also used to analyze the drill’s target area.
Named after former deputy project manager Jon Klein who died in 2011, the outcrop is of huge scientific interest as it is riddled with calcium sulfate veins, a sign that the “Yellowknife Bay” area the rover is currently surveying once played host to persistent water.
“Drilling into a rock to collect a sample will be this mission’s most challenging activity since the landing. It has never been done on Mars,” said project manager Richard Cook, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement during a January press conference when the drilling operation was being planned.
In this first test run, the drill was set to “percussion mode,” meaning it hammered into the rock, chiseling away at the target. Further tests will chisel out several holes in the rock before any samples are collected for analysis inside the rover’s suite of sophisticated laboratories. Although NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit were equipped with abrasion tools to scour rocks so the subsurface could be analyzed, Curiosity is the first mission to be equipped with a drill tool (equipped with spare drill bits) to bore into rocky targets. This tool has the capability of probing around 2 inches below the surface.
In an interview with Universe Today’s Ken Kramer, Jim Green, NASA’s Director of NASA Planetary Sciences Division, commented that the Mars rover team were in no rush, but everything is proceeding as planned. “The drilling has got to be done carefully. We are still in checkout mode and the drill is the last instrument of Curiosity’s ten science instruments to be fully checked out,” Green said.
Curiosity landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, 2012 (PST) and has been giving the world an unprecedented look at an unexplored plain inside Gale Crater called Aeolis Palus. The rover is currently exploring a geologically interesting region nicknamed “Glenelg,” its first long stop on its epic journey to Aeolis Mons (a.k.a. “Mount Sharp”), a 3 mile-high mountain in the center of Gale. In an effort to reveal the past and present habitability of Mars, Curiosity has already uncovered evidence for Mars’ wet past, aiding our ongoing efforts to better understand the history of the most habitable planet in the solar system after Earth.
Image: MAHLI image of the freshly-drilled Mars rock on sol 176 of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech