NASA rover Curiosity grabs first Martian rock sample

Marks the first time a rover has drilled into and gathered samples from a rock on another planet

NASA's super rover Curiosity has collected a sample from the inside of a rock on Mars, the first time the process has been done on another planet, NASA announced Wednesday.

The robotic rover sent images back to NASA scientists showing the drilling and an image of the powdered-rock sample in the rover's scoop.

"Seeing the powder from the drill in the scoop allows us to verify for the first time the drill collected a sample as it bore into the rock," said Scott McCloskey, NASA's drill systems engineer for Curiosity.

"Many of us have been working toward this day for years, he said. Getting final confirmation of successful drilling is incredibly gratifying. For the sampling team, this is the equivalent of the landing team going crazy after the successful touchdown."

The rover is about six months into a two-year mission to help scientists figure out if Mars has, or has ever had, an environment that could support life, even life in a microbial form.

The rover, which carries 17 cameras and 10 scientific instruments, has already found evidence of a thousand-year water flow on Mars. The finding came in the form of an outcropping of rocks that appeared to have been heaved up by a vigorous water flow.

Curiosity's two Martian predecessors - the rovers Spirit and Opportunity - are not equipped for drilling.

NASA scientists have been eager to drill so they can analyze Martian rocks for information about its mineral and chemical composition.

Curiosity's robotic arm bored a 2.5-inch hole into the rock on Feb. 8, taking in the powder the drilling created. After going through an onboard sieve, the powder will be delivered to Curiosity's analysis instruments.

The rock that was drilled sits on a section of flat bedrock. NASA has dubbed the rock "John Klein," in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011.

Scientists chose the rock for the rover's first drill because they think it may hold evidence of an ancient wet environment. NASA hopes the rock's composition may give them clues to its history.

rover's drill

An image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the rover's drill in action on a rock sample collection on Feb. 8. The target was a rock called "John Klein," in the Yellowknife Bay region of Gale Crater on Mars. Animation of three photos of the drill can be seen on the NASA web site. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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