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NASA’s Curiosity hammers away at rocks thought to once hold water

It’s an unprecedented event for NASA scientists: the Curiosity rover successfully drilled into rock on Mars, unearthing pristine materials never before analyzed by human eyes or human-built robots.

The car-sized, six-wheeled robot drilled a flat outcrop of rocks in the Martian basin known as Yellowknife Bay, where water once flowed. Curiosity’s 7-foot robotic arm wielded the drill, which probed into the hydrated mineral veins of the rocks.

In a statement released over the weekend, NASA noted that Curiosity’s hammering away appeared to simultaneously uncover a hidden vein of whitish colored material that might be calcium sulfate – as the Martian ground shook and a thin layer of rust colored soil was visibly dislodged. The robot is working at a place called Glenelg – where liquid water once flowed eons ago across the Red Planet’s surface and the latest test seems to be an indication that scientists are on the right track.

“This area is really rich with all the cracks in the rocks and the veins. It’s really fabulous,” said Dr. Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences Division, in an exclusive interview today with Universe Today on the campus of Princeton University. “The landing was an engineering feat that enabled us to do all this great science that comes next.”

These rocks, located at the Mars location called Glenelg, were once covered with water, that much scientists know. Just how much water–and whether and when it flowed in full rivers, trickled along in streams, or resided in lakes on the Red Planet’s surface–is what Curiosity’s unprecedented drilling and analysis may uncover.

Curiosity’s focus on water reveals it’s deeper purpose: whether Mars ever sustained, or currently sustains, microbial life.

Curiosity’s drill bit dug only a few millimeters deep into the outcrop of rocks, known as “John Klein,” during January 31 and February 2 test runs. New photos of the drilling traveled millions of miles through space to reach Earth this past weekend.

Curiosity boasts several cameras. One high resolution MAHLI microscopic imager on the robot’s arm tool snapped up-close images before and after the drilling tests to assess their success.

While the photos of a successful drill are exciting alone, something unexpected happened during the drilling as well. While Mars’s rust-colored soil shook, the vibrations from the drill also revealed a hidden vein of whitish colored material, which could be calcium sulfate. Another tool in place to analyze the rock drilling test, the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) touched the Martian ground to analyze the chemical composition of the rocks being drilled, and assess the hydration status of the possible calcium sulfate vein.

Curiosity’s adventures in drilling breaks new ground for Mars-exploring robots. NASA’s previous Red Planet rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were able to scrape off many rocks from the planet’s surface, but lack Curiosity’s sophisticated analysis instruments and the penetrating drills that can obtain samples below the surface.

With the testing success this month, more complex drilling excursions are to come for Curiosity, including the first sampling and analysis of pristine Martian material.

But there will be several other tests ahead for the robot before the sampling day arrives. NASA is very carefully assessing the high-tech drills capacities on Mars. While in this past test the drill was only used in percussion mode, working like a chisel, tailings have yet to be collected for analysis. Additionally, the drill has yet to rotate and bore test holes into the dusty red rock.

Curiosity can penetrate 5 centimeters into the surface of Mars. After all of these various tests are complete, the robot will be set to deliver a sample of pure Mars rock–the size of half an aspirin pill–to the two analytical labs aboard the rover.

Once the drilling at Yellowknife Bay and Glenelg is complete, Curiosity will set off to its final destination: Mount Sharp, a massive mountain that sits six miles away.