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NASA drills Martian rock suspected of holding evidence of water

NASA has reportedly entered a new phase in it is mission on Mars, announcing Monday that it successfully began drilling into a rock suspected of holding evidence of past water.

Project managers overseeing the Mars Curiosity rover mission used the bit of the drill on the rover’s robotic arm to tap the surface of the rock, making a small dent. The drill, which is capable of penetrating upwards of one inch of solid Martian rock, will feed powdered samples of rock dust into its Mars Science Laboratory, part of a process aimed at identifying signs of past life on the Red Planet.

On Monday, the rover’s camera was positioned four inches off the ground, offering viewers a pristine view of the drill and the rock itself. Recent images of the region allowed NASA to confirm its potential for evidence of past and present water. In early January the rover used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples Curiosity’s arm delivered to an analytical laboratory inside the rover, indicating that the area may once have held abundant quantities of elements essential to life.

The beginning of the drilling mission follows in the wake of an amazing journey on Mars for the NASA Curiosity team. The rover has spent the past several weeks maneuvering itself around the region, identifying potential specimens for the drilling portion of the mission. Speaking earlier this year, NASA mission controllers said the upcoming drill mission would likely be the most complex attempted by Curiosity since landing on Mars in August of 2012. The target is on a patch of flat rock named “John Klein,” named after a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011.

It remains unclear when NASA will begin drilling into the rock. The U.S.-based space agency has approached its latest Mars mission with caution, testing out a number of processes before committing to certain tasks.

“We are proceeding with caution in the approach to Curiosity’s first drilling. This is challenging. It will be the first time any robot has drilled into a rock to collect a sample on Mars,” said NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Daniel Limonadi, the lead systems engineer for Curiosity’s surface sampling and science system.

NASA’s main goal with the latest mission is an extension of its larger goal of determining if the Gale Crater landing site could ever have supported microbial life. Maintain its collection of ten science instruments and seventeen cameras, NASA says they expect to continue to detect evidence that should provide scientists with enough data to reach a definitive conclusion.