News Ticker

NASA drills rock, collects sample, begins search for life

It’s a major success for the U.S. space agency.

NASA officials announced early Saturday that its Mars rover has successfully drilled into a rock on the Martian surface, the first time a rover has probed the subsurface of Mars.

The hole, which measures 0.63 inches (1.6 centimeters) wide and 2.5 inches deep, was seen by NASA in data and images sent back by the rover early Saturday. The images show a pair of dusty holes, one a bit deeper than the other, surrounded by a fine grey dust.  Geologists say the rock holds signs that water once flowed freely across the surface of Mars and that drilling samples could provide a better understanding of how Mars came to be.

In a statement released Saturday, NASA officials said the mission was a historic achievement.

“This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science.

For the next several days, NASA controllers will issue a series of commands to the rover’s arm to carry out a series of steps to process the sample. One of the first steps requires NASA to test the sample in order to determine whether it was contaminated by material carried from Earth. The U.S. space agency will then use the rover’s science laboratory to analyze the sample with the hope of discovering signs of life. The laboratory oven will bake the material while its string of scientific instruments will search for signs of organic compounds and other elemental signs of life on Mars.

Inside the rover’s laboratory  the powder will be vibrated once or twice over a sieve, sifting out any particles larger than six-thousandths of an inch (150 microns) across. Small portions of the sample will then fall through ports on the rover deck into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. These instruments then will begin the much-anticipated detailed analysis, according to NASA.

“We’ll take the powder we acquired and swish it around to scrub the internal surfaces of the drill bit assembly,” said NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Scott McCloskey, drill systems engineer. “Then we’ll use the arm to transfer the powder out of the drill into the scoop, which will be our first chance to see the acquired sample.”

While the drilling exercise may seem fairly straightforward, it marks a major milestone for NASA. The mission is widely seen as a major step forward for NASA in that it now has the ability to probe some of the planet’s more interesting sites for signs of life.  Scientists around the world have predicted that life, if it exists on Mars, will likely be discovered below the surface, far away from the harmful effects of radiation.

A number of recently released studies have suggested that signs of life will likely be found in crevices and areas near sites that seem to resemble ancient lake beds or river channels. Earlier this year, a number of sites of interest were discovered by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), all of which seem to provide additional evidence that Mars was once a watery planet.

The current terrain, according to NASA,  is flat-lying bedrock within a shallow depression that differs from the rover’s landing site. Orbital observations collected by NASA over the months show fractured ground that cools more slowly each night than nearby terrain types do. The changes in temperature could indicate activity below the surface of the Red Planet.

The mission follows nearly three months of preparation for NASA. The space agency spent much of December and January guiding the rover to its current location in Gale crater  — an area once thought to hold water. During the time the space agency tested the rover’s set of  tool’s, including its hammer and drill. At the time, the rover team’s activities were affected by the difference between Mars time and Earth time. To compensate for the difference, the team develops commands based on rover activities from two sols (Each Martian sol lasts about 40 minutes longer than a 24-hour Earth day) earlier.

The drilling takes place as the rover continues to prepare for its next mission: Mount Sharp. The mountain holds a number of layers of rock that NASA sees as its main mission goal. The exposed layers of rock could provide NASA scientists with greater insight into how Mars, and by extension the solar system, evolved and formed over millions of years.  The region holds a number of geological targets Curiosity will explore over the next two years, starting with the rock-strewn, gravelly surface of Yellowknife Bay, the rover’s current location. Beyond that lie the layered buttes and mesas of the sedimentary rock of Mount Sharp. Yellowknife Bay is the temporary destination for first use of Curiosity’s rock-powdering drill, before the mission turns southwestward for driving to its main destination on the slope of Mount Sharp.

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.