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NASA rover to drill in area ‘that may hold clues to a wet history’

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover is reportedly preparing to drill into the surface of Mars, presenting geologists and astronomers with their first chance to collect data on the planet’s subsurface environment.

The area chosen by NASA administrators is widely seen as a perfect place for examining whether water once flowed on Mars. The rock is in an area where Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) and other cameras have revealed diverse unexpected features, including veins, nodules, cross-bedded layering, a lustrous pebble embedded in sandstone, and possibly some holes in the ground, according to NASA.

The drilling and collecting of rock dust, which has yet to be tested since landing on Mars, is the most complex mission to date for NASA. The team says they are prepared to address any potential problems that arise, which they note are likely to occur.

“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.”

The rock chosen for drilling is called “John Klein” in tribute to former Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager John W. Klein, who died in 2011.

“John’s leadership skill played a crucial role in making Curiosity a reality,” said Cook.

The drill will collect powdered samples from the interior of rocks for analysis by instruments inside the rover. According to NASA, the rover has the capability to analyze diverse soil and rock samples. Once the rock sample is collected, the rover’s science laboratory has the ability to decipher the different ratios of isotopes. Isotopes are different forms of the same element and can provide clues about environmental changes, NASA scientists say, including whether the area in question once held life.  The rover’s laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM maintains the ability to rely on three methods to analyze gases given off from the dust when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds — carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life.

The mission comes as NASA has spent much of the past month preparing the rover and testing out its equipment. The rover spent much of the December holiday in a region known as “Yellowknife Bay,” which is a flatter and lighter-toned type of terrain from what the mission crossed during its first four months inside Gale Crater. There, the rover took time to test a number of its tools, including its brush and soil collection system, which it will put to use later this month.

It remains unclear exactly what NASA expects to discover at the site. Curiosity, which has now been on Mars for just under six months, is investigating whether the planet ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life. The terrain in the area chosen for the drilling, according to NASA, differs from that of the landing site, a dry streambed about a third of a mile (500 meters) to the west.

NASA researchers spent the earlier part of this month using the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to examine sedimentary rocks in the area. NASA geologists say many of the rocks in the area are sandstone, with grains up to about peppercorn size. Other rocks nearby are siltstone, with grains finer than powdered sugar. Curiosity’s science team decided to look there for a first drilling target because orbital observations showed fractured ground that cools more slowly each night than nearby terrain types do.

That said, project scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said during a press conference on Tuesday that the drill area could provide some amazing findings.

“What these vein fills tell us is water percolated through these rocks, 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,” Grotzinger said.

The rocks could provide NASA with a better understanding of how the planet’s surface layer moves materials from one region to another.

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