National Geographic News
A rock on Mars that has been drilled by the Curiosity rover.

The hole from Curiosity's first full drilling on Friday.

Image courtesy MSSS/Caltech/NASA

Marc Kaufman

for National Geographic News

Published February 9, 2013

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."

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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.

7 comments
Kevin Li
Kevin Li

How Curiosity to detect the mineral composition there? X-ray? Chemical composition is easy but mineral is hard to identify there. Hope to know more from experts.

Richard Sauder
Richard Sauder

The presence of sterile water, past or present, does NOT imply the presence of life, past or present. So many people forget that life depends on a coded set of instructions on how to build it. The right recipe is certainly required but it can do nothing without the instruction book.

Larry Michael
Larry Michael

@Bill Alexander @Richard Sauder 

The instructions are written in code, embedded in our DNA.  It's a durable software program called "Life".   Very few bugs.  Works well with all hardware platforms.   Been around for quite sometime. 

Bill Alexander
Bill Alexander

@Richard Sauder @Bill Alexander No experiment has ever shown that a guided purposeful agent has ever intervened here on Earth or anywhere else in a way that violates the physical laws of the universe, either.

Richard Sauder
Richard Sauder

@Bill Alexander   You are correct. The Mars mission is not looking for DNA or any other "full signs of life."

However, the notion that life arose by undirected chance is flawed. No experiment has ever shown that to happen. Even the simplest cell is light years beyond a self-replicating molecule. (pardon the metaphor)  

Anyone so sure that the Earth is not a very special place, would best be instructed by being the first explorer to reach Mars. You should sign up. You may become famous!

Bill Alexander
Bill Alexander

@Larry Michael @Bill Alexander @Richard Sauder  They aren't looking for DNA necessarily.  Nor the full signs of life even.  Long before there was any instruction book there was the first self-replicating molecule, and the dawn of life arose here on Earth.  Given what we know that Mars likely had flowing waters, giving it the solvent necessary for this to occur there as well, finding organic chemistry would be a huge discovery for our species.  One final notch knocked down in the "Earth is a special place" idea still held in many religious and some philosophical corners.  If we find evidence, even of organic chemistry on Mars (long before DNA was invented by the descendants of those first self-replicating molecules), humanity will finally face the reality that although Earth is special, it is probably one of many in the cosmos and we just happen to live in a wondrous and immense universe that is a special place and likely teems with life across vast immeasurable space.  

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