NASA’s car-sized Curiosity rover has at long last started her third drilling campaign after scrutinizing an enticing outcrop exhibiting bumpy textures on a slab of sandstone rock at “Kimberley,” her current stopping point on the Red Planet. See our mosaics above and below.
“To Drill or not to Drill?”
That was the overarching question pondered by the international team of scientists and engineers directing our robotic emissary from hundreds of millions of kilometers (miles) away.
The answer came after an intensive period investigating a rock target named “Windjana” up close through a combination of laser shots, brushings, imagery, and spectrometry, and carefully scrutinizing the precious data streaming back daily across interplanetary space.
On Tuesday, April 29, Sol 615, engineers directed Curiosity to perform the “mini-drill” survey operation into the Martian rock target “Windjana,” which now counts as the one-ton robot’s third drilling operation since the unprecedented sky crane landing on the Red Planet on Aug. 6, 2012.
The test hole measured 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) deep after deploying the percussion drill located at the end of the 7-foot-long (2-meter) robotic arm.
Post drill images showed gray tailings.
“You can see that Red Mars is only a very thin layer on the planet,” wrote team member John Bridges in an update.
The next step will be to carry out a deep drill operation for sample analysis.
The team is evaluating the resulting hole and powdery, gray-colored tailings with the arm’s high-resolution MAHLI camera and other instruments to determine whether the science justifies proceeding with deep drilling to a depth of 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters).
“A decision about full drilling is planned in coming days,” NASA JPL press spokesman Guy Webster told me.
Before conducting the “mini drill” operation, Curiosity initially brushed the candidate drill site with the wire-bristle Dust Removal Tool (DRT) to clear away obscuring Red Planet dirt and dust hindering observations with the cameras and spectrometers.
“In the brushed spot, we can see that the rock is fine-grained, its true color is much grayer than the surface dust, and some portions of the rock are harder than others, creating the interesting bumpy textures,” said Curiosity science team member Melissa Rice of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in a NASA statement.
“All of these traits reinforce our interest in drilling here in order to understand the chemistry of the fluids that bound these grains together to form the rock.”
Windjana is an outcrop of sandstone located at the base of a 16-feet-tall (5-meters) Martian butte named Mount Remarkable at “The Kimberley Waypoint,” a science stopping point reached by the rover in early April 2014 along its epic 10-kilometer-long (6-mile) trek to towering Mount Sharp, the primary destination of the mission.
The sedimentary foothills of Mount Sharp reach some 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky and is the robot’s ultimate destination inside Gale Crater because it holds caches of water altered minerals. Such minerals could possibly indicate locations that sustained potential Martian life forms, past or present, if they ever existed.
Windjana is named after a gorge in Western Australia.
The terrain about Kimberley is illustrated herein by our illustrative photo mosaics assembled by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
Kimberley is one of several science destinations selected for brief investigations along meandering path to Mount Sharp.
Curiosity is pausing at the intermediate stopping points across the floor of Gale Crater in order to gather a more complete picture of the geology, climatic, and environmental conditions of this area of Mars—to put it in context over billions of years of history.
“Kimberley was chosen as a science destination because it has interesting, complex stratigraphy,” Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, told me.
If Windjana meets the requisite science criteria, Curiosity will bore a full-depth hole into the sandstone rock, pulverize and filter it, and then deliver an aspirin-sized powdery sample to the two state-of-the-art onboard miniaturized chemistry labs—SAM and CheMin.
Windjana would count as the first sandstone rock sample if selected. The first two drill locations at “John Klein” and “Cumberland” inside Yellowknife Bay were mudstone.
Curiosity departed the ancient lakebed at the Yellowknife Bay region in July 2013, where she discovered a habitable zone with the key chemical elements and a chemical energy source that could have supported microbial life billions of years ago, and thereby already accomplished the primary goal of the mission.
To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals 3.8 miles (6.1 kilometers) since touchdown inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012.
The six-wheeled robot has some 4 kilometers to go to reach the base of Mount Sharp.
To date she has snapped over 144,000 images.
Curiosity should arrive at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime in the latter half of 2014, but must first survive the unavoidable passage through a potentially treacherous dune field.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Opportunity rover continues exploring Solander Point mountain on the opposite side of Mars.
And the new MAVEN and MOM orbiters from NASA and India are streaking toward the Red Planet for orbital insertion in September 2014.
Stay tuned here for continuing updates.
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