NASA's Curiosity Rover Drills into Mars in Crucial Test

First Posted: Feb 05, 2013 08:31 AM EST

The Mars rover Curiosity has officially drilled into the Red Planet, exposing a bounty of geological samples which scientists hope will tell more about the history of the planet. This is the first time ever that a robot has carried out a preliminary drilling mission on another planet.

This preliminary drilling only comes after days of preparation, though. Researchers surveyed and tested the target rock before drilling into it, and the one-ton rover even used its lights mounting beside its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera during the Martian nighttime. Since one set of the lights are ultraviolet, they have allowed scientists to assess whether the rock contained any fluorescent minerals. In addition, the robot used its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) to analyze the drill's target area.

Now, Curiosity is finally digging in. The outcrop that the rover is drilling into is located in an area called Yellowknife Bay. It's positively rich with calcium sulfate veins, which may indicate that the location once held persistent water.

After drilling, Curiosity will be able to determine the type of minerals examined on Mars with its on-board detector, which needs to be kept at a chilly minus 279 degrees Fahrenheit. Curiosity is equipped with 10 science instruments and 17 cameras in total, making it a veritable rolling laboratory.

Of course, Curiosity hasn't begun any of its serious drilling yet. During this test run, the drill was set to "percussion mode," which means that it hammered into the rock. Further tests will be conducted, chiseling several holes into the rock, before samples are collected for analysis inside the rover's laboratories. The drill itself will be able to probe two inches below the surface--a first for any robot on a Mars mission.

Currently, Curiosity's main goal is to find out if its Gale Crater landing site could have once supported microbial life. The drill is viewed as a key part of this mission. 

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