In its continuing mission to fathom whether Mars' ancient environment may have been suitable to host microbial life, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity once again dusted off its drill piece and, for the first time, bored into a rock at the base of Mount Sharp - a 3.5 mile high mountain in the center of Gale Crater also known as Aeolis Mons.
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Curiosity is currently located at the "Pahrump Hills" outcrop at the mountain's base and mission scientists are excited by this new phase of the mission as samples collected from Mount Sharp will also help us understand how the mountain formed.
"This drilling target is at the lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in the nearby hills," said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This first look at rocks we believe to underlie Mount Sharp is exciting because it will begin to form a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed, and what led to its growth."
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Samples of the excavated powdered rock from the 6.7 centimeter-deep drill hole has been collected by the sample handling instrument on the rover's robotic arm and it will be passed through the rover's on-board chemistry laboratory. Minerals within the sample will then be analyzed and interpreted.
Curiosity has now drilled into four rocks so far since landing on Mars in August 2012 and, according to a JPL news release, this rock - dubbed "Confidence Hills" - is of a softer consistency than the previous targets. Also, as pointed out by the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla, the material excavated from Confidence Hills appears redder than the previous rock dust samples. It will be interesting to see how the chemical composition of this sample differs from the others.
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This new location is a fascinating one for planetary geologists. There's an abundance of layered rock deposits that were likely formed when Mars was a lot wetter than it is now. Also, there are examples of concretions - small, spheres of hardened deposits that have been eroded out of the softer sedimentary rock over the millions of years since they formed.
So, although Curiosity has spent over 2 years on Mars, we've only sampled the scientific tip of the iceberg. As the mission spends its time getting up-close and personal with Mount Sharp, we can expect to learn a lot more about the ancient Martian environment and how its geology evolved.
For more details on Curiosity's most recent drilling operation, browse the JPL news release.