Nasa’s Curiosity rover has used a drill carried at the end of its robotic arm to bore into a flat, veiny rock on Mars and collect a sample from its interior. This is the first time any robot has drilled into a rock to collect a sample on Mars.
“This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August,” said John Grunsfeld, Nasa associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.
The fresh hole, about 1,6 centimetres wide and 6,4 centimetres deep in a patch of fine-grained sedimentary bedrock, can be seen in images and other data Curiosity beamed to Earth on 9 February. The rock is believed to hold evidence about long-gone wet environments. In pursuit of that evidence, the rover will use its laboratory instruments to analyse rock powder collected by the drill.
For the next several days, ground controllers will command the rover’s arm to carry out a series of steps to process the sample, ultimately delivering portions to the instruments inside.
Rock powder generated during drilling travels up flutes on the bit. The bit assembly has chambers to hold the powder until it can be transferred to the sample-handling mechanisms of the rover’s Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device.
Before the rock powder is analysed, some will be used to scour traces of material that may have been deposited onto the hardware while the rover was still on Earth, despite thorough cleaning before launch.
“Building a tool to interact forcefully with unpredictable rocks on Mars required an ambitious development and testing program,” said JPL’s Louise Jandura, chief engineer for Curiosity’s sample system. “To get to the point of making this hole in a rock on Mars, we made eight drills and bored more than 1 200 holes in 20 types of rock on Earth.”
Inside the sample-handling device, the powder will be vibrated once or twice over a sieve that screens out any particles larger than six-thousandths of an inch (150 microns) across. Small portions of the sieved sample will fall through ports on the rover deck into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. These instruments then will begin the much-anticipated detailed analysis.
The rock Curiosity drilled is called “John Klein” in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011.