First drilling of Mars by Curiosity confirms orbiters are predicting correctly

5 Nov 2014

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The first holes drilled on Mars by US space agency NASA’s Curiosity rover have provided the mission’s first confirmation of a mineral mapped from orbit.

The automated motor vehicle collected powder by drilling into a rock outcrop at the base of Aeolis Mons, better known as Mount Sharp, in late September.

“This connects us with the mineral identifications from orbit, which can now help guide our investigations as we climb the slope and test hypotheses derived from the orbital mapping,” said Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

By drilling, Curiosity was able to deliver a soil sample to the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover. This specimen contained much more hematite than any rock or soil sample previously analysed by CheMin during the mission. Hematite is a iron-oxide mineral that is often used in jewelry. The sample gives clues about ancient conditions on Mars from when it formed.

Curiosity is helping scientists study the planet’s climate and geology, and whether it has ever sustained microbial life. The rover has been exploring Mars for two years now. Prior to its arrival, a mineral-mapping instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed evidence of hematite in the geological unit that includes the Pahrump Hills outcrop.

“We’re now on a path where the orbital data can help us predict what minerals we’ll find and make good choices about where to drill,” said Ralph Milliken of Brown University, a member of Curiosity’s science team. “Analyses like these will help us place rover-scale observations into the broader geologic history of Gale that we see from orbital data.”

The site on Mars where Curiosity drilled into rock outcrop. Image via Nasa.gov

Planet Mars image via Shutterstock

Dean is a freelance journalist and editor covering media.

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