National Geographic Daily News
The first drilling site for Mars rover Curiosity.

The first drilling site for the Mars rover Curiosity.

Image courtesy MSSS/Caltech/NASA

Rocks on Mars.

A closeup of rocks in Yellowknife Bay on Mars. Image courtesy MSSS/Caltech/NASA

Marc Kaufman

for National Geographic News

Published January 15, 2013

The first drill sample ever collected on Mars will come from a rockbed shot through with unexpected veins of what appears to be the mineral gypsum.

Delighted members of the Curiosity science team announced Tuesday that the rover was now in a virtual "candy store" of scientific targets—the lowest point of Gale Crater, called Yellowknife Bay, is filled with many different materials that could have been created only in the presence of water. (Related: "Mars Has 'Oceans' of Water Inside?")

Project scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said during a press conference that the drill area has turned out "to be jackpot unit. Every place we drive exposes fractures and vein fills."

Mission scientists initially decided to visit the depression, a third of a mile from Curiosity's landing site, on a brief detour before heading to the large mountain at the middle of Gale Crater. But because of the richness of their recent finds, Grotzinger said it may be some months before they begin their trek to Mount Sharp.

The drilling, expected to start this month, will dig five holes about two inches (five centimeters) into bedrock the size of a throw rug and then feed the powder created to the rover's two chemistry labs for analysis.

The drill is the most complex device on the rover and is the last instrument to be used. Project manager Richard Cook, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that operating it posed the biggest mechanical challenge since Curiosity's high-drama landing. (Watch video of Curiosity's "Seven Minutes of Terror.")

A Watery Past?

That now desiccated Mars once had a significant amount of surface water is now generally accepted, but every new discovery of when and where water was present is considered highly significant. The presence of surface water in its many possible forms—as a running stream, as a still lake, as ground water soaked into the Martian soil—all add to an increased possibility that the planet was once habitable. (Watch a video about searching for life on Mars.)

And each piece of evidence supporting the presence of water brings the Curiosity mission closer to its formal goal—which is to determine whether Mars was once capable of supporting life.

Curiosity scientists have already concluded that a briskly moving river or stream once flowed near the Gale landing site.

The discovery of the mineral-filled veins within Yellowknife Bay rock fractures adds to the picture because those minerals can be deposited only in watery, underground conditions.

The Curiosity team has also examined Yellowknife Bay for sedimentary rocks with the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Scientists have found sandstone with grains up to about the size of a peppercorn, including one shaped like a flower bud that appears to gleam. Other nearby rocks are siltstone, with grains finer than powdered sugar. These are quite different from the pebbles and conglomerate rocks found in the landing area, but all these rocks are evidence of a watery past. (Related: "A 2020 Rover Return to Mars?")

One of the primary reasons Curiosity scientists selected Gale Crater as a landing site was because satellite images indicated that water-formed minerals were present near the base of Mount Sharp. Grotzinger said that the minerals' presence so close to the landing site, and some five miles from the mountain, is both a surprise and an opportunity.

The current site in Yellowknife Bay is so promising, Grotzinger said, that he would have been "thrilled" to find similar formations at the mission's prime destination at the base of Mount Sharp. Now the mission can look forward to the surprises to come at the mountain base while already having struck gold.

3 comments
Byron Torres
Byron Torres

exellent !!!! noe we have another reason to believe in our evolution and the begining of this human raze  !!!!


ibrahim busolo
ibrahim busolo

Water on Mars....! this is good news we hope to get more on the conditions of other planets in the past.

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

  • Brave Sage of Timbuktu

    Brave Sage of Timbuktu

    Abdel Kader Haidara had made it his life's work to document Mali's illustrious past. When the jihadists came, he led the rescue operation to save 350,000 manuscripts.

See more innovators »

Phenomena

See more posts »

Latest News Video

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »