That big sigh of relief coming from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on Wednesday was from scientists and engineers working with the Mars rover Curiosity after it successfully placed a tablespoon of powder drilled from inside a rock into a scoop for analysis.
“This is the first time any robot … has drilled into a rock to collect a sample on Mars,” Curiosity engineer Louise Jandura told reporters on a conference call after the rover beamed back pictures of its work.
“It allows us to go beyond the surface layer of the rock, unlocking a kind of time capsule of evidence about the state of Mars going back 3 or 4 billion years,” Jandura said.
Curiosity landed itself inside a 93-mile-wide impact basin on Aug. 6 for a two-year mission to assess if Mars has or ever had the chemistry and environments to support and preserve life.
The rock, which Curiosity drilled on Feb. 8, bears tantalizing clues that it formed in water, including bulging veins of whitish material and spherical deposits of various sizes and colors.
“The rocks in this area … have the potential to give us information about multiple interactions of water and rock,” said Curiosity scientist Joel Hurowitz.
Whether or not it could have preserved organics, however, is another question, added lead scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology.
“When you find exactly these sorts of conditions on Earth … and everything still goes right, it’s still an accident of fate to preserve organics, and so we’ll have to separate at some point the pursuit of what may have been a habitable environment from what may or may not be an environment that preserves organics,” Grotzinger said.
“Obviously we’re interested in the organics … but right now we’re sort of on the pathway to hopefully characterizing this place as a habitable environment,” he added.
Curiosity’s next step will be to enclose the rock sample inside its Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis, nicknamed CHIMRA, device and shaken over a sieve to screen out particles larger than 0.006 inch (150 microns) in diameter.
Next, a small bit of the sieved sample will be processed in two laboratory instruments — Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) — for analysis.
Engineers decided to slightly change procedures to cut the amount of vibration in the system after a problem developed with a ground test unit.
The sieve’s screen in one of the two test versions of CHIMRA partially detached after extensive use, though it remained operational, NASA said.
An analysis and assessments of potential mission impacts are under way.
Image: This image from NASA’s Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover’s drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover’s scoop. In planned subsequent steps, the sample will be sieved, and portions of it delivered to the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS