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NASA Curiosity rover drills first Martian rock, named John Klein

February 11, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • Image taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager shows the hole in a rock called "John Klein" where the rover conducted its first sample drilling on Mars. Several preparatory activities with the drill preceded this operation, including a test that produced the shallower hole on the right two days earlier.
Image taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager shows the hole in a rock called "John… (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS…)

NASA’s Curiosity rover has successfully drilled its first rock on Mars, officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced over the weekend.

The drill’s use is a Martian landmark -- the first time scientists have drilled into the surface. It's a key moment for for the Mars Science Laboratory mission as well, marking a coming of age of sorts for the rover. Since landing on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, Curiosity has tested each of its instruments, from its many cameras to its laser-zapping instrument called ChemCam, and the drill's use is the grand finale of the show.

Curiosity's drill is part of what makes this rover such a giant step up from its Martian predecessors Spirit and the still-running Opportunity, which landed in 2004. Unlike those twin rovers, Curiosity can actually sample rock, then carefully drop it into a hole in its body. Inside, a chemical lab made up of the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument and the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument will analyze it (also a first for Martian science). A sieve will keep out any particles larger than six-thousandths of an inch.

The drill, which sits on the end of Curiosity’s instrument-laden arm, bored a 0.63-inch hole some 2.5 inches deep into a patch of sedimentary bedrock – fine-grained rock that could contain clues from past wet environments. The rock powder from this hole will be processed and analyzed by the suite of instruments in its belly.

Back in mid-January, officials at Jet Propulsion Laboratory had estimated that the drill would be put into action some two weeks from then. Drilling is a complex process that can take days – each step is painstakingly choreographed. For example, it should take several days after drilling for ground controllers to process the sample and then send it to its lab instruments.

The drilled rock is named John Klein, after a deputy principal investigator for the mission who died in 2011. Curiosity is on its way toward Mt. Sharp, a three-mile high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater. Its layers may provide clues as to whether Mars was ever hospitable to life. 

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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