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NASA Mars rover confirms first drilled martian rock sample

22 February 2013

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has relayed new images that confirm it has successfully obtained the first sample ever collected from the interior of a rock on another planet.

An image (courtesy of NASA) of the drill's rock powder held in the scoop

No rover has ever drilled into a rock beyond Earth and collected a sample from its interior. 

Transfer of the powdered-rock sample into an open scoop was visible for the first time in images received Wednesday (February 20) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

"Seeing the powder from the drill in the scoop allows us to verify for the first time the drill collected a sample as it bore into the rock," said JPL's Scott McCloskey, drill systems engineer for Curiosity. "Many of us have been working toward this day for years. Getting final confirmation of successful drilling is incredibly gratifying. For the sampling team, this is the equivalent of the landing team going crazy after the successful touchdown." 

The drill on Curiosity's robotic arm took in the powder as it bored a 64mm hole into a target on flat Martian bedrock on February 8. The rover team plans to have Curiosity sieve the sample and deliver portions of it to analytical instruments inside the rover. 

The scoop now holding the precious sample is part of Curiosity's Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device. During the next steps of processing, the powder will be enclosed inside CHIMRA and shaken once or twice over a sieve that screens out particles larger than 150 microns across. 

Small portions of the sieved sample later will be delivered through inlet ports on top of the rover deck into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. 

In response to information gained during testing at JPL, the processing and delivery plan has been adjusted to reduce use of mechanical vibration. The 150-micron screen in one of the two test versions of CHIMRA became partially detached after extensive use, although it remained usable. The team has added precautions for use of Curiosity's sampling system while continuing to study the cause and ramifications of the separation. 

The sample comes from a fine-grained, veiny sedimentary rock called "John Klein," named in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011. The rock was selected for the first sample drilling because it may hold evidence of wet environmental conditions long ago. The rover's laboratory analysis of the powder may provide information about those conditions. 

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using the Curiosity rover with its ten scientific instruments to investigate whether an area within Mars' Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favourable for microbial life. 


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