LOS ANGELES – In a Mars first, the Curiosity rover drilled into a rock and prepared to dump an aspirin-size pinch of powder into its onboard laboratories for closer inspection.
The feat marked yet another milestone for the car-size rover, which landed last summer to much fanfare on an ambitious hunt to determine whether environmental conditions were favorable for microbes.
Using the drill at the end of its 7-foot-long robotic arm, Curiosity on Friday chipped away at a flat, veined rock bearing numerous signs of past water flow. After nearly seven minutes of pounding, the result was a drill hole 2 1/2 -inches deep.
The exercise was so complex that engineers spent several days commanding Curiosity to tap the rock outcrop, drill test holes and perform a “mini-drill” in anticipation of the real show. Images beamed back to Earth overnight showed a fresh borehole next to a shallower test hole Curiosity had made earlier.
“It was a perfect execution,” drill engineer Avi Okon at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Saturday.
Previous Mars landings carried tools that scraped away the exterior layers of rocks and dirt. Opportunity and Spirit – before it died – toted around a rock grinder. Phoenix, which touched down near the Martian north pole in 2008, was equipped with an ice rasp to chisel frozen soil.
None, however, was designed to bore deep into rocks and collect pulverized samples from the interior.
With the maiden drilling out of the way, it’ll take several days before Curiosity transfers the powder to its instruments to analyze the chemical and mineral makeup.
The cautious approach is by design. Curiosity is the most high-tech spacecraft to land on Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor and engineers are still learning how to efficiently operate the $2.5 billion mission.
The team won’t know until next week how much rock powder Curiosity collected. But judging by the small amount left in the drill hole, Okon said he was confident the rover has enough for its upcoming analysis.
Once Curiosity finishes its rock analysis, the team’s focus will turn to starting the drive to a mountain, expected to take nine months. It is there that scientists hope Curiosity will uncover signs of organic molecules.