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February 13, 2013

Mars Science Lab drills to get rock powder sample

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Raphael Jaffe
staff writer

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.

Curiosity has now successfully used all of its unique equipment to examine if Mars was capable of supporting microscopic life.

The percussion drill was used to bore into fine-grained sedimentary bedrock on Sol 182 of the mission [Feb 8].

The hole is about 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) wide and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep. The rock powder travels up flutes on the bit, and enters the sample handling mechanism of the Curiosity.

This is the first time any robot has drilled into a rock to collect a sample on Mars. Scientist hope that rocks like this hold evidence about long-gone wet environments. In pursuit of that evidence, the rover will use its laboratory instruments to analyze the rock powder.

The Curiosity controllers at Jet Propulsion Lab cautiously used several days to tap the outcrop, and drill a shallow test hole, which can be seen in the photo below, along with the final hole. The actual drilling took about seven minutes.

ìWe believe we have collected sufficient material from the rock to meet our objectives of hardware cleaning and sample drop-off,” said Avi Okon, cognizant drill engineer at JPL.

Before the rock powder is analyzed, some will be used to scour traces of material that may have been deposited onto the hardware while the rover was still on Earth, despite thorough cleaning before launch. Also, there is some concern that microscopic chips of Teflon may have rubbed off the drill and mixed with the rock powder. Okon said that any Teflon contamination would be small, because of the short drilling time.

We’ll take the powder we acquired and swish it around to scrub the internal surfaces of the drill bit assembly,” said JPL’s Scott McCloskey, drill systems engineer. “Then we’ll use the arm to transfer the powder out of the drill into the scoop, which will be our first chance to see the acquired sample.”

Inside the sample-handling device, the powder will be vibrated once or twice over a sieve that screens out any particles larger than six-thousandths of an inch (150 microns) across. Small portions of the sieved sample will fall through ports on the rover deck into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. These instruments then will begin the much-anticipated detailed analysis.

Building a tool to interact forcefully with unpredictable rocks on Mars required an ambitious development and testing program,” said JPL’s Louise Jandura, chief engineer for Curiosity’s sample system. “To get to the point of making this hole in a rock on Mars, we made eight drills and bored more than 1,200 holes in 20 types of rock on Earth.”

Previous Mars explorers included tools to handle rocks and dirt, but Curiosity is the first to actually drill into the rocks. Opportunity and Spirit have rock grinders. The Phoenix probe to the frozen north pole carried an ice rasp which chiseled frozen soil.

The rock Curiosity drilled is called “John Klein,” in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011. Drilling for a sample is the last new activity for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project, which is using the car-size Curiosity rover to investigate whether an area within Mars’ Gale Crater has ever offered an environment favorable for life.

ìThe most advanced planetary robot ever designed is now a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. “This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America.”




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