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As Curiosity prepares to drill, team receives major award

The team behind NASA’s Curiosity mission, which is currently preparing to send its rover’s powerful impact drill through the surface of Mars for the first time, has been recognized with one of the highest honors for space-related activity.

The Curiosity team was recently presented with the Space Foundation’s John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr., Award for Space Exploration, given each year to the person or organization deemed to have made the most significant contribution to advancing space exploration.

“We are recognizing the NASA Mars Science Laboratory mission team for its aggressive and technologically advanced exploration of another planet,” said Space Foundation Chief Executive Officer Elliot Pulham in a statement. “This incredible mission will yield valuable science about conditions on Mars and enable critical technologies for future missions.”

The rover has worked hard to earn the distinction. Since landing on Mars last August, the space craft has relayed 18,226 images and nearly 10 gigabytes of raw information about the planet’s geology, mineral chemistry, soil composition, and atmosphere back to scientists on earth. It’s next job, drilling and collecting rock dust, will be the most complex undertaking yet for Curiosity’s team.

“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 Mars Science Laboratory project manager Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The drill hardware interacts energetically with Martian material we don’t control. We won’t be surprised if some steps in the process don’t go exactly as planned the first time through.”

Curiosity’s drill is capable of penetrating about 2 inches into the Red Planet’s subsurface. It will extract a small quantity of powdered rock to be analyzed with the rover’s onboard chemistry lab. According to project scientists, the process may take six weeks or more, as the team tries to avoid damaging the drill bit or contaminating the mineral sample with bits of Earth left over on the machinery. It is critical to be careful in an environment where the nearest repair shop is hundreds of thousands of miles away.

The drill site chosen is a rocky outcrop fractured by vein-like channels that may have held water in Mars’ distant past.

“What these vein fills tell us is water percolated through these rocks,” said project scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “[Water percolated] through these fracture networks and then minerals precipitated to form the white material that ChemCam (a rover instrument) has concluded is very likely a calcium sulfate, probably hydrated in origin.”

By comparing the Martian rocks observed by Curiosity and previous orbital missions to known examples on our planet, researchers have gathered increasing evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars’ surface. “On Earth, usually, these veins are formed by water circulation in fractures, and this usually occurs in low to moderate temperatures,” said ChemCam team member Nicolas Mangold of the Laboratoire de Planetologie et Geodynamique de Nantes, France.

As NASA prepares to begin drilling, it already has some ideas about what may lie underneath the Red Planet’s surface. Small spherules, or concretions, photographed by the rover have provided scientists with clues to how water and other materials are transferred through the surface layers of the planet.

“All of these are sedimentary rocks, telling us Mars had environments actively depositing material here,” said Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. “The different grain sizes tell us about different transport conditions.”

The rover is making its way from Gale Crater, where it landed over 5 months ago, to a nearby peak called Mount Sharp. Overhead observations suggested to project scientists that the area was a good candidate for potential signs of microbial life, based on the evidence that water once flowed through the region. Now Curiosity’s drill is poised to uncover some answers.

“We will go into the sequence of rocks that are the brightest prospects for telling us about the early habitability of Mars,” said Grotzinger. “We are at a very sweet spot to do that.”

Whatever the rover turns up as it penetrates ever deeper into mysteries of our planetary neighbor, it has certainly earned the honor recently bestowed by the Space Foundation. The whole world is waiting with bated breath to see what Curiosity uncovers next.