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NASA's Curiosity rover being readied to begin drilling into a Martian rock


This view shows the patch of veined, flat-lying rock selected as the first drilling site for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
This view shows the patch of veined, flat-lying rock selected as the first drilling site for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Staff writers

January 15, 2013 — Scientists have zeroed in on a Martian target for the Curiosity rover to drill into: A rock outcrop as flat as a pool table that's expected to yield fresh insight into the red planet's history.

This image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows inclined layering known as cross-bedding in an outcrop called "Shaler" on a scale of a few tenths of metres, or decimeters. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
This image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows inclined layering known as cross-bedding in an outcrop called "Shaler" on a scale of a few tenths of metres, or decimeters. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Running a tad behind schedule, Curiosity was due to arrive at the site in the next several days. 

After an inspection of the surroundings, the car-size rover will test its drill for the first time "probably in the next two weeks,'' project manager Richard Cook of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Tuesday.

The highly anticipated drilling has been billed as the most complex engineering task since the acrobatic landing inside a Martian crater last summer. Curiosity is on a quest to determine whether environmental conditions could have been favourable for microbes.

By boring into a rock and transferring the powder to the rover's on board chemistry lab and other instruments, scientists should get a better handle on the region's mineral and chemical makeup.


"We're thrilled, and we can't wait to get drilling,'' said project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology.

Previous rovers Opportunity and Spirit carried a grinding tool that peeled away rock layers. Curiosity is capable of drilling down several inches to collect a sample from the interior -- a first on Mars.

Opportunity is still operating on the surface of Mars, but Spirit lost contact with Earth in 2010.

Since the $2.5 billion Curiosity mission launched in 2011, engineers have been troubleshooting an issue with the rover's drill in which flakes of Teflon can break off and get mixed with the rock samples. Cook said the contamination should not affect the mission.

"We are reasonably confident that it's something that we'll be able to work our way around,'' he said.

This image of an outcrop at the "Sheepbed" locality, taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover with its right Mast Camera (Mastcam), shows show well-defined veins filled with whitish minerals, interpreted as calcium sulfate. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
This image of an outcrop at the "Sheepbed" locality, taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover with its right Mast Camera (Mastcam), shows show well-defined veins filled with whitish minerals, interpreted as calcium sulfate. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

As the most high-tech interplanetary rover, Curiosity has been on a slow streak since its action-packed arrival. Grotzinger said the pace of the mission was "100 per cent discovery-driven'' and can't be rushed.

Already, Curiosity has lingered longer than expected at its current location because scientists have been captivated by the sedimentary rocks that differ from the pebbles found at the landing site. 

After some last-minute studies, the rover will head to the rock outcrop dubbed "John Klein'' after a mission team member who died in 2011.

Curiosity's ultimate goal is to drive to the base of Mount Sharp, a six-month journey with no stops. The plan is to begin the road trip after drilling is complete with pauses along the way.


With files from The Associated Press

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