Mars rover drills deep for dust
New milestone ... NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is the first to bore into a rock. Photo: Reuters
The Curiosity rover has drilled into a rock on Mars and is ready to dump a pinch of powder into its onboard laboratories for closer inspection.
The feat marked a new milestone for Curiosity, which landed last year on a mission to determine whether environmental conditions on Mars were favourable for microbes.
Using the drill at the end of its robotic arm, Curiosity on Friday chipped away at a flat, veined rock bearing numerous signs of past water flow.
Success ... the fresh drill hole, centre, bears evidence of past water flow. Photo: AP
After nearly seven minutes of pounding, the result was a drill hole. Images beamed back to Earth showed a fresh borehole next to a shallower test hole Curiosity had made earlier.
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.
Team members shared their excitement of Curiosity's latest high jinks on social media.
The "full drill hole was a success! I'm sure it was LOUD and they heard the drilling action for MILES!" tweeted rover driver Paolo Bellutta.
Previous Mars rovers carried tools that scraped away the exterior layers of rocks and dirt. Opportunity and Spirit – before it died – had a rock grinder and Phoenix, which touched down near the Martian north pole in 2008, was equipped with an ice rasp to chisel frozen soil. But none were designed to bore deep into rocks and collect pulverised samples
It will take several days before Curiosity transfers the powder to its instruments to analyse 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 neighbour, and engineers are still learning how to efficiently operate the $US2.5 billion ($2.44 billion) car-sized vehicle.
The Curiosity project manager, Richard Cook, of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had predicted drilling would be the hardest engineering task since the landing.