Mars Rover Curiosity did her final "first" scientific activity when she drilled a 2 1/2-inch hole in a Martian rock. She extracted samples of interior material to be analyzed for evidence that it once held water or other material that could support life.
On Thursday, February 7 (Mars Sol 180), the rover's drill made its first practice hole in a sedimentary rock named John Klein in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011. That first hole, although only about a half centimeter deep, yielded dust that allowed project scientists to determine whether the drill would produce a sample that would work for complete analysis. Once the scientists decided that it would, a full-depth drilling was undertaken.
Although Curiosity is not designed to search for life, it is designed to search for indicators that Mars could have supported life. Her next generation partner, now under development will, as of this writing, be able to look for life. NASA does have a habit of reneging on expectations as costs of projects rise, so, although "go-and-see" is the watchword of today's industry, "wait-and-see" is a good attitude to take when dealing with our space agency.
Sample hole and practice hole
A hole was drilled about two thirds of an inch in diameter and two-and-a-half inches deep near the test hole. The drillbit's flights pulled the pulverized granules from the rock to the surface. There are chambers on the bit assembly that hold the powder and transfer it to Mars Rover Curiosity's "Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device (there may have been some severe facial contortions as the NASA folks struggled to come up with an acronym that could almost be pronounced "Chimera"). Portions will then be sent to the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.
This will be the most complex and important science Curiosity has done since beginning her trek. While none of it can demonstrate life directly, it can infer the possibility of life's past presence based on the past presence of support for life. In this fashion, the rover's work may add a most important link in the chain of evidence that leads to the knowledge of whether Mars was ever warm and wet enough for life to have germinated. Humanity's most burning question today is, could life have been here? Is Earth alone the harborer of even the most primitive life, or will it be found wherever in the universe its necessities, liquid water and organic molecules, are present?
Some of the powder will be used to scrub the sample reservoir to ensure that no Terran contamination that may have hitchhiked to Mars contaminates the Martian sample. The remainder will be sifted through several screens to measure grain sizes. Then selected portions will be chemically analyzed. The purpose of the analysis is to determine whether this is truly sedimentary rock, laid down by water. Curiosity's on-board lab will also be analyzing the powder for the presence of any organic (carbon based) molecules.
Curiosity at "John Klein"
Analysis will not begin for a day or three, NASA being the cautious agency it is. NASA will announce the results as soon as they're received and evaluated, so information should be available by the end of next week.
Photo Source: NASA JPL