Mars Rover Curiosity Does Another Science… With Her Drill

By Prev Info - October 18, 2022

 Mars Rover Curiosity did her final “first” scientific activity when she drilled a 2 1/2-inch hole in a Martian rock. She extracted samples of interior material to be analyzed for evidence that it once held water or other material that could support life.

On Thursday,7 February  2013 (Mars Sol 180), the rover’s drill made its first practice hole in a sedimentary rock named John Klein in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011. That first hole, although only about a half centimeter deep, yielded dust that allowed project scientists to determine whether the drill would produce a sample that would work for complete analysis. Once the scientists decided that it would, a full-depth drilling was undertaken.

Although Curiosity is not designed to search for life, it is designed to search for indicators that Mars could have supported life. Her next generation partner, now under development will, as of this writing, be able to look for life. NASA does have a habit of reneging on expectations as costs of projects rise, so, although “go-and-see” is the watchword of today’s industry, “wait-and-see” is a good attitude to take when dealing with our space agency.

At the center of this image from NASA's Curiosity rover is the hole in a rock called "John Klein" where the rover conducted its first sample drilling on Mars.

Sample hole and practice hole

A hole was drilled about two thirds of an inch in diameter and two-and-a-half inches deep near the test hole. The drillbit’s flights pulled the pulverized granules from the rock to the surface. There are chambers on the bit assembly that hold the powder and transfer it to Mars Rover Curiosity’s “Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device (there may have been some severe facial contortions as the NASA folks struggled to come up with an acronym that could almost be pronounced “Chimera”). Portions will then be sent to the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.

This will be the most complex and important science Curiosity has done since beginning her trek. While none of it can demonstrate life directly, it can infer the possibility of life’s past presence based on the past presence of support for life. In this fashion, the rover’s work may add a most important link in the chain of evidence that leads to the knowledge of whether Mars was ever warm and wet enough for life to have germinated. Humanity’s most burning question today is, could life have been here? Is Earth alone the harborer of even the most primitive life, or will it be found wherever in the universe its necessities, liquid water and organic molecules, are present?

Some of the powder will be used to scrub the sample reservoir to ensure that no Terran contamination that may have hitchhiked to Mars contaminates the Martian sample. The remainder will be sifted through several screens to measure grain sizes. Then selected portions will be chemically analyzed. The purpose of the analysis is to determine whether this is truly sedimentary rock, laid down by water. Curiosity’s on-board lab will also be analyzing the powder for the presence of any organic (carbon based) molecules.

This rectangular version of a self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013).

Analysis will not begin for a day or three, NASA being the cautious agency it is. NASA will announce the results as soon as they’re received and evaluated, so information should be available.

Mars Rover Curiosity – Night Photos and Drilling Plans

Mars Rover Curiosity snapped the first night photos ever taken on Mars. While some of the science team planned for the Rover’s first use of its sampling drill, others photographed a variety of Martian rocks, including a day/night view.

A drilling site, named John Klein by the science crew, was selected January 10. Since then, the rover has been moving about the vicinity of the drill site, while her operating crew directs her to take photographs and perform preparatory functions with various pieces of equipment. Preparation is crucial. There is no turn-by-turn direct instruction of the Rover, because it’s a twelve minute data lag away. It’s not possible to make immediate corrections… the effort has to be right the first time.

This view shows the patch of veined, flat-lying rock selected as the first drilling site for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity.

“John Klein” Drilling Site (Annotated) Credit: NASA–JPL

As part of the process of photographing the vicinity of the drill site, Mars Rover Curiosity took night photos of a rock called Sayunei under white and ultraviolet light, after she scuffed the surface with a wheel to expose rock surface beneath the ever present dust. These were the first night photos taken on the surface of Mars. The ultraviolet lighting was intended to expose any possible fluorescing minerals at the rock surface. The photos were taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, at the end of the rover’s robot arm. MAHLI has several LED clusters and a focusable lens, making it the best choice for this task.

This image of a Martian rock illuminated by ultraviolet LEDs (light emitting diodes) is part of the first set of nighttime images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the robotic arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity.This image of a Martian rock illuminated by white-light LEDs (light emitting diodes) is part of the first set of nighttime images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the robotic arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity.

First night Photos from Mars – Ultraviolet and White Light — Credit: NASA-JPL

NASAs Mars Rover Curiosity Preens for Photos and Does More Science

Mars Rover Curiosity spent Sol 84 (Halloween to Earthlings) taking 55 high res shots of herself and stitching them into a single self portrait. The Rover also sipped a bit of Mars’ thin air for an atmosphere study, and completed an analysis.

NASA scientists built many calibration marks and condition telltales into their newest rover, and they gave her several cameras. When they decide to do a condition check, they have Curiosity take a high definition (HD) photo of whatever they feel the need to view. In this case, it was a look at the entire rover they wanted. The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera took 55 individual HD shots of various parts of the Rover, which were then stitched into one all-encompassing mosaic of the entire machine, a beautiful HD self portrait of Curiosity in her element at Rocknest.

Curiosity Self Portrait Martian Air Analysis

Mars Rover Curiosity is equipped to multitask as nothing in space ever was before. There is a chemistry lab, a laser analysis tool, a mineralogy lab, cameras to go with all of them… and an air lab. The rover had employed them all, except the air lab, until Friday November 2. Using the same Sample Analysis at Mars suite of labs that analyzed the soil, Curiosity provided analysis of the extremely thin Martian atmosphere. Scientists believe that although the atmosphere of Mars is only about one percent as dense as Earth’s, it was originally much denser. They want to know where it went, and why. Curiosity discovered that what was left was rich in the heavier forms of carbon dioxide, which makes up almost 96 percent of the atmosphere. That discovery suggests that lighter forms of CO2 rose to the top of the atmosphere and simply blew away, reducing the atmosphere by at least half. The analysis also matched the analysis of air bubbles in Martian meteorites found on Earth.

While it had a sample, Curiosity zapped a bit of it with the Laser, and used the spectrograph to look for methane, a gas produced in many chemical ways, but 95 percent of which on Earth is produced by living organisms. So, while methane discovered on Mars would not prove the past or present existence of life, it would strongly suggest the possibility. However, none was discovered in this test… a great disappointment, to be sure, but not a closeout. Methane tends to concentrate locally, and Curiosity may yet discover atmospheric methane elsewhere during the rover’s sojourn as she travels up and around the mountain.

Has NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity Made a Discovery ‘for the History Books?’

Mars Rover Curiosity has made a discovery that no one at NASA will talk about. Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger said, it’s “one for the history books.” However, scientists want to check and double-check, to avoid a false positive announcement.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity used a mechanism on its robotic arm to dig up five scoopfuls of material from a patch of dusty sand called 'Rocknest,' producing the five bite-mark pits visible in this image from the rover's left Navigation Camera (Navcam).The rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument apparently discovered something in a recent sample that put every scientist on the Mars Curiosity mission on high alert. “SAM is the rover’s onboard chemistry lab, and it’s capable of identifying organic compounds — the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it,” as described by NPR. However, in another recent event, scientists thought Curiosity had discovered methane, a gas produced primarily by biological processes, near Rocknest. The problem they faced was that it was nearly inevitable that Earth gasses accompanied Curiosity to Mars. So they ran more cleansing routines and then pulled more samples. To everyone’s great disappointment, but no one’s great surprise, when new atmospheric samples were analyzed, the methane was no longer present.

So now it’s a game of patience. Data is still coming in, and Dr. Grotzinger waits for the last of it to arrive before presenting Curiosity’s “discovery for the history books.” The actual presentation of the data and findings is to be made “…at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which takes place Dec. 3-7 in San Francisco,” according to Discovery’s Although any discovery that would confirm the past or present existence of life on Mars would certainly be “one for the history books,” scientists tend to look farther afield than that. There are probably several possible discoveries that Dr. Grotzinger and his colleagues would consider worthy of the “history books.”

While she transmitted data from her potentially great find, Mars Rover Curiosity continued with what some job descriptions describe as “other duties as assigned.” A great dust storm rages halfway around the planet, and Curiosity is measuring its impact on temperatures and surface pressure on her side of the planet. Curiosity also did a “touch-and-go.” After six weeks of immobility, Curiosity moved to a rock dubbed “Rocknest Three,” touched it with her seven-foot robot arm, and then turned and headed toward another rock nearby. As a test of the Curiosity Team’s ability to create complex, multitasking instructional programs, and Curiosity’s ability to carry them out, that small series of events was a study in perfection.

What’s the big secret going to be? Evidence of past life? Something alive and growing today? An Earth or Moon meteorite (Why not? Martian meteorites are found on Earth, no?)? Or perhaps an alien artifact? Stick around. Things have been slow for the past few weeks, but in about ten days they should start to crackle.





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