Six months since touching down on the surface of Mars, NASA’s remarkable Curiosity rover has completed the first drilling and collection of a sample from within a rock on another planet. The target of its attention is a flat rock, laced with pale veins, which scientists believe may yield clues about Mars’ wet past. For the team operating the $2.5 billion, six-wheeled vehicle, the drilling has been particularly poignant, since the rock is named in honor of former Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Deputy Project Manager John Klein, who died in 2011. Images received Wednesday at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., revealed the electrifying transfer of the powdered-rock sample into Curiosity’s open scoop.
Half an Earth-year on the blood-red terrain does not seem to have dulled the public’s fascination with Curiosity, nor its constant ability to surprise and impress with its images, its data, and its capabilities. Until this recent procedure, no rover has ever drilled into a rock on a celestial body other than our own and retrieved a sample from its interior. “Seeing the powder from the drill in the scoop allows us to verify for the first time the drill collected a sample as it bore into the rock,” said JPL drill systems engineer Scott McCloskey. “Many of us have been working toward this day for years. Getting final confirmation of successful drilling is incredibly gratifying.” For his team, McCloskey likened it to the euphoria and high-fives seen among the landing team when Curiosity made landfall on Mars in August 2012.
As described by this AmericaSpace article in January, the John Klein drill site was identified by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) and other instruments, which revealed diverse geological features, including “veins,” nodules, cross-bedded layering, a lustrous, sandstone-embedded pebble, and possibly holes in the ground. It lies about one third of a mile to the west of Bradbury Landing, where Curiosity touched down last year, and despite their relative proximity the two sites differ markedly: unlike the pebbly conglomerate rocks at the landing site, John Klein and its environs boast elevated levels of calcium, sulfur, and hydrogen. The “veins” are particularly intriguing. “These veins are likely composed of hydrated calcium sulfate, such as bassinate or gypsum,” said ChemCam team member Nicolas Mangold of France’s Laboratoire de Planetologie et Geodynamique de Nantes. “On Earth, forming veins like these require water circulating in fractures.”
The drill on Curiosity’s robotic arm extracted the powder as it bored a 2.5-inch hole into the rock on 8 February. In the days to come, the JPL team plans to sieve the sample and deliver portions to analytical instruments within the rover. This sieving will be done by the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device, which will screen out particles larger than 0.006 inches in diameter. Small portions will then be delivered through inlet ports into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments.
Drilling a sample on the Red Planet was by no means a straightforward process, and MSL Project Manager Richard Cook described it as the most challenging activity since the landing. “The drill hardware interacts energetically with Martian material we don’t control,” he cautioned before the attempt. “We won’t be surprised if some steps in the process don’t go exactly as planned the first time through.”
Since arriving on Mars—and landing in the yawning bowl of 96-mile-wide Gale Crater with the aid of a revolutionary “Sky Crane”—Curiosity has made significant inroads in our understanding of the planet which is perhaps closer to our own than any other world in the Solar System. Although public and media speculation was rife in November that the rover had found traces of microbial life, NASA has since admitted that no such evidence has been detected to date. Still, Curiosity has crept in an east-southeasterly direction across the desolate, ochre-hued landscape, toward Glenelg, a geologically important area marked by an intersection of three different terrain types, including layered bedrock. En-route to Glenelg in late September, the rover conducted the first X-ray diffraction analysis of the internal structure of a soil sample on another world.
The surface environs of John Klein are quite different from the dry streambed of Bradbury Landing, a third of a mile to the west, where Curiosity landed five months ago. The rock lies within a shallow depression, nicknamed “Yellowknife Bay,” and orbital observation signals revealed that this fractured ground cools more slowly during each Martian night than nearby areas. “The orbital signal drew us here,” admitted MSL Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, “but what we found when we arrived has been a great surprise. This area had a different type of wet environment than the streambed where we landed … maybe a few different types of wet environments.”