LOS ANGELES — ’s Mars rover Curiosity has begun drilling on the planet’s surface for the first time, paving the way for the vehicle’s initial sample-collection efforts.
The rover used both percussion and rotation to bore about 2 cm (0.8 in.) into a sample in an area of vein-bearing rock called “John Klein.” This is also where Curiosity conducted earlier percussion-only testing and is whereplans to conduct the first set of drill-collected samples. The agency says pre-drilling observations of this rock “yielded indications of one or more episodes of wet environmental conditions.”
News of the first “mini drill” was confirmed in data from Mars received late Feb. 6 at NASA’sin Pasadena. Depending on analysis of the drill cuttings on the ground around the hole, the rover team “plans to proceed with commanding the first full drilling in coming days,” the agency states.
Scientists hope the drill samples will produce detailed data about the mineral and chemical composition of the rocks that might reveal whether Mars ever offered an environment suitable for life. The drilling zone lies within a shallow depression called “Yellowknife Bay” which lies around 500 meters (1,640 ft.) to the east of the landing site and was originally identified from orbital observations of fractured ground that cooled more slowly each night than nearby terrain.
Potential targets for drilling in the John Klein area include a variety of fractured rocks, veins and samples with concretions—small spherical concentrations of minerals. As both veins and concretions are geological indicators of precipitation of minerals from water, the area containing these features “turns out to be the jackpot unit,” says Mars Science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Speaking earlier during preparations Grotzinger explained the site was selected for this unusual ensemble of features. “Water went through these rocks and precipitated chemicals. It’s the first time in this mission we’ve seen something that’s not just an aqueous environment but also one which results in precipitation of minerals.”