For the first time in history, humans have drilled a hole into rock on Mars and are collecting the powdered results for analysis, NASA announced Saturday.
After weeks of intensive planning, the Mars rover Curiosity undertook its first full drill on Friday, with NASA receiving images on Saturday showing that the procedure was a success.
Curiosity drilled a hole that is a modest 2.5 inches (6.35 centimeters) deep and .6 inches (1.52 centimeters) wide but that holds the promise of potentially great discoveries. (Watch video of the Mars rover Curiosity.)
"The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars," John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement on Saturday.
"This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August."
The site of the much-anticipated penetration is a flat section of Mars rock that shows signs of having been underwater in its past.
Called Yellowknife Bay, it's the kind of environment where organic materials—the building block of life—might have been deposited and preserved long ago, at a time when Mars was far wetter and warmer than it is today.
The contents of the drilling are now being transferred into the rover's internal collection system, where the samples will be sieved down to size and scoured to minimize the presence of contamination from Earth. (Watch video of Curiosity's "Seven Minutes of Terror.")
Then the sample will be distributed to the two instruments most capable of determining what the rocks contain.
The first is the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM), which has two ovens that can heat the powdered rock to almost 2000°F (1093°C) and release the rock's elements and compounds in a gaseous form.
The gases will then be analyzed by instruments that can identify precisely what they are, and when they might have been deposited. Scientists are looking for carbon-based organics believed to be essential for any potentially past life on Mars.
Powder will also go to the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument for a related analysis that looks especially at the presence of minerals—especially those that can only be formed in the presence of water.
Louise Jandura, chief engineer for Curiosity's sample system at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that designing and testing a drill that can grab hold of Martian rock and commence first a percussive shallow drilling and then dig a deeper hole was difficult.
The drill, which is at the end of a 7-foot arm, is capable of about 100 discrete maneuvers.
"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," Jandura said in a statement.
Results from the SAM and CheMin analyses are not expected for several days to weeks.