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Curiosity collects powder sample in first drill on Mars

Posted: 10 February 2013

NASA's Curiosity rover used its hammering, rotating drill Friday to extract the first powdery samples from within fine-grained sedimentary bedrock, giving scientists their first chance to analyze material from inside a rock on Mars.

The hole in the center of this image is the freshly-bored remnant of Curiosity's first full drill on Mars. The smaller hole in the lower right of the image is from a partial test drill previously conducted by the rover's drill. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
After a cautious week of tests to show the drill was healthy and operating as designed, the rover's control team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California sent commands for Curiosity to complete a full drill Friday.

Using percussive and rotary motion, the drill bored a hole into a slab of rock scientists say holds evidence of a wetter time on Mars.

The drill carved a hole 1.6 centimeters, or 0.63 inch, wide and 6.4 centimeters, or 2.5 inches, deep, NASA said. The rock selected for the first drill, named John Klein after the mission's late deputy project manager, features light-toned veins. Rocks with similar features on Earth only form in the presence of water, according to researchers.

Pictures beamed back to Earth on Saturday show the fresh hole surrounded by a ring of powder. The drill collects fine-grained samples as it bores into rock through an auger into a holding chamber, where it awaits delivery to Curiosity's sample analysis instruments, which can examine the material's chemical and mineral composition, plus look for organic compounds.

"We commanded the first full-depth drilling, and we believe we have collected sufficient material from the rock to meet our objectives of hardware cleaning and sample drop-off," said Avi Okon, drill cognizant engineer at JPL.

This animation shows the rover's arm and turret, which contains the drill, positioned over a slab of rock during the drill activity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Before delivering the sample to Curiosity's instruments, some of the powder will be used to clean the drill assembly. There could still be contaminants from Earth on some of the rover's hardware, according to NASA.

"We'll take the powder we acquired and swish it around to scrub the internal surfaces of the drill bit assembly," said JPL's Scott McCloskey, drill systems engineer, in a press release. "Then we'll use the arm to transfer the powder out of the drill into the scoop, which will be our first chance to see the acquired sample."

Once the material is in the rover's scoop, it will dump the powder through a screen-like sieve that allows only the smallest particles to flow into Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars and Chemistry and Mineralogy instruments.

The drill is the last instrument to be used in Curiosity's extensive toolkit, which includes a brush, laser, scoop, stereo eyes and ovens. NASA officials declared the rover fully operational after Friday's drill.

"The most advanced planetary robot ever designed is now a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate, in a statement released Saturday. "This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America."

The Planets
From tiny Mercury to distant Neptune and Pluto, The Planets profiles each of the Solar System's members in depth, featuring the latest imagery from space missions. The tallest mountains, the deepest canyons, the strongest winds, raging atmospheric storms, terrain studded with craters and vast worlds of ice are just some of the sights you'll see on this 100-page tour of the planets.

Hubble Reborn
Hubble Reborn takes the reader on a journey through the Universe with spectacular full-colour pictures of galaxies, nebulae, planets and stars as seen through Hubble's eyes, along the way telling the dramatic story of the space telescope, including interviews with key scientists and astronauts.

3D Universe
Witness the most awesome sights of the Universe as they were meant to be seen in this 100-page extravaganza of planets, galaxies and star-scapes, all in 3D!


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