Curiosity successfully completes drill test on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover made history this week by boring its first hole into the Martian surface.

The February 6 “mini-drill test” of a fine-grained sedimentary rock marks the first full operation of both the hammering and rotary action of Curiosity’s drill bit, which is located at the end of the one-ton rover’s 7-foot-long robotic arm.

The successful test, which NASA announced Thursday, comes on the heels of a simpler test of the hammering action of the drill, which was performed last weekend. (Watch video of the Mars rover Curiosity.)

While the small hole produced on the floor of Mars’s Gale crater is modest, at no more than 0.8 inches deep, it confirms that the 6-wheeled geochemistry lab is ready to excavate drilling samples. It’s this prized Martian powder–grey colored tailing visible in the post-drilling image above–that will be collected and placed inside the rover’s on-board lab for chemical analysis.

NASA said in a statement that, if the pulverized grey rock generated through the test drilling is deemed “suitable for processing by the rover’s sample handling mechanisms, the rover team plans to proceed with commanding the first full drilling in coming days.”

Plans are to get those first drill samples from the site where the rover is now parked, on top of a patch of flat, mineral vein-bearing rock dubbed “John Klein.” The mission scientists say that samples from this rock may offer up more evidence on the local environment’s history.

In the past few weeks, Curiosity has already discovered tantalizing evidence of an ancient stream bed in the surrounding bedrock.

The drilling and rock sampling operation is essential for Curiosity to be able to carry out its main mission: determining if Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting life.

Stay tuned for news about the historic first analysis of drilling samples from the Red Planet.

Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.