January 16, 2013
Curiosity Heading Towards First Drilling Target
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
NASA's Curiosity rover is making its way towards a flat rock with pale veins that could provide more insight into the history of Mars.
Once the rover rolls up to the rock in the coming days, NASA engineers plan on drilling it for a sample during the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Curiosity sits inside Mars' Gale Crater, investigating whether the planet ever had conditions to host microbial life. The rover landed on the Red Planet five months ago, beginning its two-year prime mission.
"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."
NASA said that Curiosity will first be gathering powdered samples from inside the rock, and use those to scrub the drill. Then, the rover will drill and ingest more samples from the rock, and will analyze for information about its mineral and chemical composition.
Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) and other cameras have revealed diverse unexpected features in the area the rover is sitting, including veins, nodules, cross-bedded layering, and lustrous pebble embedded in sandstone.
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," Cook said.
The target is on flat-lying bedrock within a shallow depression known as "Yellowknife Bay." This area features terrain different from that of the landing site, including a dry streambed about a third of a mile to the west.
Curiosity's science team decided to look there for a first drilling target because orbital observations showed fractured ground that cools slower each night.
"The orbital signal drew us here, but what we found when we arrived has been a great surprise," said Mars Science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "This area had a different type of wet environment than the streambed where we landed, maybe a few different types of wet environments."
Curiosity's laser-pulsing Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument has brought one line of evidence, finding elevated levels of calcium, sulfur and hydrogen.
"These veins are likely composed of hydrated calcium sulfate, such as bassinite or gypsum," said ChemCam team member Nicolas Mangold of the Laboratoire de Planetologie et Geodynamique de Nantes in France. "On Earth, forming veins like these requires water circulating in fractures."