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Mars Rover Curiosity to Drill First Rock in Yellowknife Bay

Jan 16, 2013 02:22 AM EST
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This is what it's like to spend eight months on Mars

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is ready to begin drilling for the first time into a flat rock with pale veins, NASA announced Tuesday.

The rock, which lies within a shallow depression called "Yellowknife Bay", will be assessed using the robot's survey instruments. If the flat rock meets the rover engineers' approval, it will be the first rock sample to be drilled within the next two weeks. NASA scientists believe that the flat rock may hold clues to a wet history on the Red Planet.

"Drilling into a rock to collect a sample will be this mission's most challenging activity since the landing. It has never been done on Mars," Mars Science Laboratory project manager Richard Cook said in a statement.

"The drill hardware interacts energetically with Martian material we don't control. We won't be surprised if some steps in the process don't go exactly as planned the first time through."

The terrain in Yellowknife Bay differs from the rover's landing site Gale Crater, a dry streambed about a third of a mile (about 500 meters) to the west. The geological site in Yellowknife Bay had a different type of wet environment, which has raised interest in mission officials.

The rock chosen to be drilled is named "John Klein" as a tribute to the former Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager John W. Klein, who died in 2011.

Curiosity rover will gather powdered samples from inside the rock and use them to scrub the drill. Then the rover will drill and take more samples to analyze the mineral and chemical composition of the rock. 

The rover's laser-pulsing Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument has already inspected the light-toned veins on the rock and found elevated levels of calcium, sulfur and hydrogen.

"These veins are likely composed of hydrated calcium sulfate, such as bassinite or gypsum," said ChemCam team member Nicolas Mangold of the Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique de Nantes in France. "On Earth, forming veins like these requires water circulating in fractures."

Curiosity landed on the Gale Crater Aug. 6 to determine whether environmental conditions on the planet could have ever supported microbial life. The ultimate destination of the rover, which is on a two-year mission, is Mount Sharp. The rover will carry out a six-month, non-stop journey to the base of Mount Sharp, a 3.4mile-high peak in the middle of the Gale Crater.

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