May 10, 2013
Curiosity Rover To Make Second Drill Into Ancient Martian Rock
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
After a month without contact with their rover, the Mars Curiosity team has selected their next target for drilling: a flat rock called Cumberland.
An on-board analysis of John Klein found signs of an ancient Martian environment that would have been hospitable to microbial life. The two flat, bumpy rocks are rooted in a sheet of rock on the surface of a superficial depression called "Yellowknife Bay."
The results from Cumberland are expected to corroborate results from the first drill, which found much less oxidizing in the rock than the soil sample Curiosity tested before it began drilling.
"We know there is some cross-contamination from the previous sample each time," said Dawn Sumner, a Curiosity team member from the University of California at Davis. "For the Cumberland sample, we expect to have most of that cross-contamination come from a similar rock, rather than from very different soil."
NASA scientists noted Cumberland seems to have a greater number of erosion-resistant granules that create surface bumps. The bumps are actually clusters of minerals, which scientists say were formed when water once covered the rock. Because it has more of these mineral clumps, Cumberland could provide additional information about the makeup of the local rock layer.
The short drive to Cumberland comes after a necessary four-week break caused by the sun passing between the Earth and Mars in a phenomenon known as a solar conjunction. The rover was able to continue monitoring the Martian atmosphere during the hiatus but was unable to effectively communicate with the NASA team.
"That all went fine — it kind of executed flawlessly a long set of preplanned activities," Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity deputy project scientist, told Space.com. "We had never planned 30 days at once (before), so that was a relief."
After the break, NASA scientists upgraded the rover´s operating software. Curiosity is still operating on its “B-side,” or backup computer, after a memory glitch knocked out the A-side. NASA scientists said they were able to eventually fix the A-side computer and it is now operating as the backup.
The rover is currently nine months into a two-year mission since landing on Mars in August 2012. After the drilling of Cumberland and a few other examinations nearby, the rover is scheduled to drive toward the base of Mount Sharp, a 3-mile high mountain nearby.
Mission planners are currently planning Curiosity's route to Mount Sharp. They said they hope to include pre-identified, high-priority science targets as stops along the way. However, the team admitted they will have to exclude potentially important targets in the interest of efficiency.
"One of our engineers said it's like putting your family in the car to go to Disneyland," Vasavada said. "Along the way, there's the biggest ball of twine, and a little dinosaur museum and all this stuff. But you have to tell your kids, 'We can't do everything, or we'll never get to Disneyland.'"