Curiosity digs into its first Martian rock, munches on dust for signs of water

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This image of an outcrop at the "Sheepbed" locality shows well-defined veins filled with whitish minerals, interpreted as calcium sulfate.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is getting ready to drill into its first-ever Martian rock as part of its search for evidence of water on red planet. NASA scientists believe that this rock outcrop they have christened "John Klein" was once submerged in water.

Pictures of the dig site taken by the Mastcam reveals features indicative of flowing water, including veins, nodules, cross-bedded layering, and a lustrous pebble embedded in sandstone. Over the next two weeks, Curiosity will excavate three rocks in the area using an arm-bound drill and "ingest" samples for analysis. Yum.

Curiosity will first drill a few test holes to create powdered dust that it will use to scrub the drill, removing any contaminants from Earth. After that, Curiosity will take samples up to an inch deep from the rock and veins to analyze them with its onboard laboratory for their mineral and chemical composition.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This view shows the patch of veined, flat-lying rock selected as the first drilling site for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity.

Researchers suspect the veins are composed of hydrated calcium sulfate. As Nicolas Mangold, from the Laboratoire de Planetologie et Geodynamique de Nantes in France, points out, “forming veins like these [on Earth] requires water circulating in fractures.”

Mars Science Laboratory project manager Richard Cook says that drilling into Mars will be challenging since it’s never been done before.

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

[NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory]

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