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Curiosity rover drills into Martian sandstone

Posted: 7 May 2014

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, stationed at a site selected for closer scientific scrutiny, has drilled into a sandstone outcrop to collect its first sample of rock powder in a year for delivery into the mobile robot's internal instruments for a thorough analysis.

This image recorded by Curiosity's mast-mounted camera shows the drill site at Windjana. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Mission officials announced the successful drill Tuesday, and it could take several weeks for the rover to drop the fine-grained samples into a pair of research payloads and complete an analysis of the material.

Scientists selected a rock dubbed "Windjana" for the drill, which bored a hole 1.6 centimeters, or 0.63 inch, in diameter and 6.5 centimeters, or 2.6 inches, deep late Monday, Pacific time.

The rock is a sandstone, a different type of material than the mudstones Curiosity drilled into on the mission's first two samplings in 2013.

Curiosity drilled an exploratory hole at the Windjana site last week. The test turned up a darker powder than at the rover's earlier drill sites.

"The drill tailings from this rock are darker-toned and less red than we saw at the two previous drill sites," said Jim Bell of Arizona State University in Tempe, deputy principal investigator for Curiosity's Mast Camera. "This suggests that the detailed chemical and mineral analysis that will be coming from Curiosity's other instruments could reveal different materials than we've seen before. We can't wait to find out!"

Mudstones are deposited in a watery environment, and research based on the drill samples gathered last year led scientists to conclude the rover was exploring an ancient lakebed that once contained the key ingredients for microbial life. Curiosity departed that research site, named Yellowknife Bay, last year to begin a year-long trek to Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high mountain scientists think harbors more evidence of a once-habitable Mars.

Curiosity is now exploring a site known as "the Kimberley," a waypoint on the rover's journey across Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide impact basin just south of the Martian equator. Four different types of rock intersect at the Kimberley, which is named for a region of western Australia known for its geological riches.

One of the rover's navigation cameras captured this view of the robot arm hovering over the drill site late Monday, Pacific time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Kimberley is about 2.5 miles, or 4 kilometers, from the Yellowknife Bay site.

Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity's deputy project scientist, said Tuesday that the choice of the Windjana sandstone for the rover's next drilling addresses a different force in Martian geology: wind and erosion.

"As we've come to understand this area better, our goals for sampling have focused around understanding the role of fluids in transporting, depositing, and eventually cementing the sandstones that we see around the Kimberley," Vasavada told Spaceflight Now. "We think the answers here are applicable to understanding how the landscapes we've encountered in our drive across the plains formed, and have evolved over time through wind and erosion."

The powder extracted by Curiosity's robot arm-mounted drill Monday flowed through an auger into a holding chamber. The material will be dumped out of the drill into the one-ton rover's scoop, then through a sieve to separate larger and small clumps.

The samples will be vibrated over the sieve to only let through particles smaller than 150 microns, or about six one-thousandths of an inch, into the rover's Chemistry and Mineralogy, or CheMin, and Sample Analysis at Mars instruments.

CheMin will examine the rock's chemical and mineral composition, and the SAM payload is tuned to detect organic compounds, the building blocks of life. The rover may resume driving toward Mount Sharp while the instruments do their work, according to mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The $2.5 billion mission's first two drill samples contained no trace of organics detectable by SAM, which heats samples to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and sniffs the gases released from the dirt to determine its make-up.

Artist's concept of the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA
The negative result from Yellowknife Bay has prompted the science team to reconsider their strategy for finding organics.

Radiation measurements on Mars indicate cosmic rays could destroy organic molecules, but the material might be preserved within one meter, or about 3.3 feet, of the surface, where soil and bedrock could shield organics from the constant life-destroying radiation bombardment.

Curiosity does not carry an instrument to penetrate that deep into the Martian subsurface, but geologists are on the lookout for potential drill sites where wind erosion has exposed underground layers in the red planet's relatively recent past.

While the jury is still out on what Curiosity will find in its latest drilled sample, Vasavada said there is little indication the site hosts organic material.

"Whether we'll find any organic materials is highly uncertain," Vasavada said. "We don't have the evidence for lake-deposited sediments as at Yellowknife Bay. But the fine-grained nature of the rock could help protect any organic materials that were incorporated during its deposition."

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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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