Curiosity Drills!

curiosity_drillsIn what is a first amongst cosmic first, the Curiosity Rover drilled into Martian rock and collected fresh samples from the resulting dust. The precision drilling took place this past Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 – during the 182nd day of the mission – after numerous tests and procedures were conducted. The images were beamed back to Earth on the following day (Saturday, Feb 9) amidst a great deal of fanfare and celebration.

Given the fact that it took them nearly a decade of painstaking work and effort to design, assemble, launch and land the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, it’s obvious while the rover team is overjoyed with this latest development. What’s more, this was more than just a first in the history of space exploration, it also marked Curiosity’s 6 month anniversary on the Red Planet since touching down on Aug. 6, 2012 inside Gale Crater.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, had this to say about the drilling:

“The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars. This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America.”

curiosity_drilling_sightCuriosity drilled a circular hole about  16 mm (0.63 inch) wide and 64mm (2.5 inches) deep into the red slab at the “John Klein” rock site. The  fine-grained sedimentary rock, which is rich with hydrated mineral veins of calcium sulfate, parted to produce a slurry of grey trailings surrounding the hole. These dust samples were then collected for examination using the rover’s on board laboratory.

The team believes the area known as Yellowknife Bay, where the drilling took place, repeatedly experienced percolation of flowing liquid water eons ago when Mars was warmer and wetter, and potentially more hospitable to the possible evolution of life. These latest samples, they hope, will offer additional compelling evidence to this effect, and also some traces of organic molecules.

curiosity_drillbitWhile this may sound like an ordinary day around NASA, it represents a quantum leap in terms of what remote landed craft are capable of doing. At no time in the past have astronauts been able to place mobile research platforms on a distant planet, collect samples of said planet, and conduct research on them, all the while beaming the results and images back to labs at Earth for analysis.

What’s next for the rover? Well, once the analysis is complete, the 1 ton robot will continue to investigate Yellowknife Bay and the Glenelg area. After that, it will set off on a nearly year long trek to her main destination – the sedimentary layers of the lower reaches of the  5 km (3 mile) high mountain named Mount Sharp – some 10 km (6 miles) away from its current position.


A Curiosity Christmas!

marsHey all! It’s a new year, a new day, but hopefully, there’s still some holiday cheer to go around! And in that spirit, I thought I’d share some news which came in over the holidays concerning Curiosity’s mission to Mars. For the rover, Christmas was celebrated at a location dubbed “Grandmas House”. Well, technically it spent it at Sol 130, a designated point in an area known as “Yellowknife Bay”. This area is a small depression located in the geographic region known as Glenelg, some 400 meters from “Bradbury Landing” where it first put down.

Curiosity-at-Yellowknife-Bay-Sol-130_3a_Ken-Kremer-580x208It is in Yellowknife Bay that Curiosity has been engaged in searching for its first target site to drill for a rock sample. The purpose of this to test out the rover’s high powered hammering drill, a test which has been put off because the Mars Science Team feared that the rock samples at other locations were not optimal. But the Glenelg area – which lies at the junction of three different types of geologic terrain – features a different type of geologic terrain compared to what Curiosity has driven on previously.

Curiosity-Yellowknife-Bay-Sol-125_2c_Ken-Kremer-580x151While there, Curiosity snapped a series of panoramic pictures of the area, which NASA compiled into the photos seen here and at the top. The rover also used its the APXS X-ray mineral spectrometer, ChemCam laser and MAHLI hand lens imager to gather initial science characterization data on the region and its rocky outcroppings. As you can plainly see, Yellowknife Bay was aptly named, being quite similar in appearance to its namesake here on Earth.

Hard to say what Curiosity will find once its begins drilling, but NASA is sure to be raving about it, either way. Everyone knows those Mars Science Laboratory people can’t keep anything a secret, even when they’re not sure they’ve got anything. Yes, MSL, that was a veiled reference to that “Earthshaking news” story you got us all excited about. And to answer you’re next question, no, I haven’t gotten over it yet. Can’t you tell?

Stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet! And while you’re at it, check out the video below where MSL team member Colette Lohr, the Tactical Uplink Lead, provides the latest video update on the Curiosity rover.

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