PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is driving toward a flat rock with pale veins that may hold clues to a wet history on the Red Planet. If the rock meets rover engineers’ approval when Curiosity rolls up to it in coming days, it will become the first to be drilled for a sample during the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
The size of a car, Curiosity is inside Mars’ Gale Crater investigating whether the planet ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life. Curiosity landed in the crater five months ago to begin its two-year prime mission.
“Drilling into a rock to collect a sample will be this mission’s most challenging activity since the landing. It has never been done on Mars,” said Mars Science Laboratory project manager Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The drill hardware interacts energetically with Martian material we don’t control. We won’t be surprised if some steps in the process don’t go exactly as planned the first time through.”
Curiosity first will gather powdered samples from inside the rock and use those to scrub the drill. Then the rover will drill and ingest more samples from this rock, which it will analyze for information about its mineral and chemical composition.
The chosen rock is in an area where Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) and other cameras have revealed diverse unexpected features, including veins, nodules, cross-bedded layering, a lustrous pebble embedded in sandstone, and possibly some holes in the ground.
The rock chosen for drilling is called “John Klein” in tribute to former Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager John W. Klein, who died in 2011.
“John’s leadership skill played a crucial role in making Curiosity a reality,” said Cook.
This view shows the patch of veined, flat-lying rock selected as the first drilling site for NASA’s
Mars rover Curiosity. The rover’s right Mast Camera (Mastcam), equipped with a telephoto lens, was about 16 feet (5 meters) away from the site when it recorded this mosaic’s component images, between 3:10 and 3:33 in the afternoon of the 153rd Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Jan. 10, 2013).
The area is shot full of fractures and veins, with the intervening rock also containing concretions, which are small spherical concentrations of minerals. The scale bar on the left image is 19.7 inches (50 centimeters) long. On the annotated version, three boxes, each about 4 inches (10 centimeters) across, designate enlargements on the right that illustrate attributes of the area.