NASA scientists announced that Mars rover Curiosity had broken ground on the red planet, starting its first drilling operation on the Martian surface.
The rover has been stationed at a depression within the Gale Crater known as Yellowknife Bay for the last couple of weeks, preparing its drill and on board systems for the drilling operation, which it has commenced by drilling into a rock dubbed “John Klein” after a deceased rover mission scientist.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will be drilling into the rock of Yellowknife Bay to search for evidence of water, the location being ideal because of its deep bowl shape, which could have, in millennia past, contained water and thus affected or altered the rocks found in the bay.
Having touched down on the red planet on Aug. 6 last year, Curiosity has busily traversing the Gale Crater floor, making numerous observations as well as collecting its first samples of Martian soil at the Rocknest. One of its most significant finds so far has been the discovery of an ancient waterway within the crater - which clearly points to the existence of water in the Red Planet’s past. Now its drilling operation will further investigate this.
The operation will involve drilling into the fine grained sedimentary rock of the Bay up to a few centimeters, after which samples will be fed into the rover’s on-board laboratories for analysis. The drilling marks the first time any rover has conducted such an operation on Mars, with previous rovers not being equipped with a drilling tool.
Speaking about the drilling operation, Daniel Limonadi, lead systems engineer for Curiosity’s surface sampling and science system at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said, “We are proceeding with caution in the approach to Curiosity’s first drilling. This is challenging. It will be the first time any robot has drilled into a rock to collect a sample on Mars.”
Prior to the drilling, mission scientists pressed the drill arm down onto the surface overnight to see how the drastic drop in temperature on the Martian surface could possibly affect the rover’s arm, causing it, as well as the rest of the chassis, to expand and contract by about a tenth of inch.
Pictures taken of the drilling by the rover’s MAHLI hand lens, released by NASA, show indentation on the John Klein rock, which is believed to contain calcium sulphate.