NASA’s Curiosity rover has gone where no other robot has gone before -- about 2.5 inches into the Martian surface.
America’s roving geologist on the Red Planet employed its drill on Mars for the first time and collected bits of powdered rock. Curiosity snapped a picture of the rock dust in the scoop with one of its own cameras.
Previous rovers have been able to study the surfaces of Martian rocks, but this is the first time a NASA rover has been able to study the interior of a rock, seeing geological traces that have been sealed away from harsh surface conditions.
Mars Curiosity engineer Louise Jandura told reporters during a phone conference on Wednesday that the maneuver is akin to “unlocking a time capsule of evidence about the state of Mars going back 3 or 4 billion years.”
Next, Curiosity will be analyzing the sample using several onboard instruments: the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis, or Chimra; the Chemistry and Mineralogy device, or CheMin; and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, or SAM.
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The sample taken comes from an area of veiny sedimentary rock that NASA has dubbed “John Klein,” after a Curiosity team member who died in 2011. In this part of the Martian plane, plates of bedrock are surrounded by soil, with spherical nodules and high-standing veins of material embedded in the rock.
“All these features tell us the rocks in the area have a really rich geological history,” Curiosity scientist Joel Hurowitz told reporters.
Preliminary data indicate the whitish powder from the rock drilling is likely calcium sulfate, although scientists won’t know for sure until the full chemical analysis comes in.
The whitishness of the Martian rock’s interior suggests that the inside of the rock didn’t go through the oxidizing process that produces the Red Planet’s characteristic hue. Further geological data could show that ancient Mars looked very different from the crimson, rocky ball we see today.
One of the larger aspects of Curiosity’s mission is to investigate whether the environment on the Martian Gale Crater could have ever supported life. The mission has gone relatively smoothly since Curiosity’s “seven minutes of terror” descent last summer, which required precise timing and a newly developed “sky crane” to lower the rover to the surface.
The Curiosity team did encounter a small hiccup on this latest drilling operation -- software bugs caused the cleaning of the drill and the transference of the sample to take a bit longer than expected. But NASA scientists were able to work around the bugs, and Curiosity suffered no harm.
NASA researchers have also been using two twins of Curiosity for stress-testing here on Earth, and they identified one small problem that the Martian rover could encounter. One of the Earth-based units saw a slight malfunction in a little sieve that is used to strain big particles out of a sample (the rover’s internal instruments need fine-grained material to work with). One of the edge welds on this test unit has been failing, causing the sieve to slowly unzip from the rest of the structure.
However, Curiosity’s seams and the ones on the other Earth-based unit are holding up just fine. The Earth-bound rovers are also being put under much more stress than Curiosity is expected to endure -- the team still got the use of the sieve for a time equivalent to well beyond Curiosity’s primary mission. Still, it pays to be cautious, so NASA is taking steps to shorten Curiosity’s sieving time during its sampling.