NASA rover drill pulls first taste from Mars mountain

NASA rover drill pulls first taste from Mars mountain
This image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the first sample-collection hole drilled in Mount Sharp, the layered mountain that is the science destination of the rover's extended mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has collected its first taste of the layered mountain whose scientific allure drew the mission to choose this part of Mars as a landing site.

Late Wednesday, Sept. 24, the rover's hammering drill chewed about 2.6 inches (6.7 centimeters) deep into a basal-layer outcrop on Mount Sharp and collected a powdered-rock sample. Data and images received early Thursday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, confirmed success of this operation. The powder collected by the drilling is temporarily held within the sample-handling mechanism on the rover's arm.

"This drilling target is at the lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in the nearby hills," said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL. "This first look at rocks we believe to underlie Mount Sharp is exciting because it will begin to form a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed, and what led to its growth."

After landing on Mars in August 2012 but before beginning the drive toward Mount Sharp, Curiosity spent much of the mission's first year productively studying an area much closer to the , but in the opposite direction. The mission accomplished its science goals in that Yellowknife Bay area. Analysis of drilled rocks there disclosed an ancient lakebed environment that, more than three billion years ago, offered ingredients and a chemical energy gradient favorable for microbes, if any existed there.

NASA rover drill pulls first taste from Mars mountain
This map shows the route driven by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover from the "Bradbury Landing" location where it landed in August 2012 to the "Pahrump Hills" outcrop where it drilled into the lowest part of Mount Sharp. The rover reached Pahrump Hills with a 73-foot (22.4-meter) drive on the 653rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (Sept. 19, 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

From Yellowknife Bay to the base of Mount Sharp, Curiosity drove more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) in about 15 months, with pauses at a few science waypoints. The emphasis in mission operations has now changed from drive, drive, drive to systematic layer-by-layer investigation.

"We're putting on the brakes to study this amazing mountain," said Curiosity Deputy Project Manager Jennifer Trosper of JPL. "Curiosity flew hundreds of millions of miles to do this."

Curiosity arrived Sept. 19 at an outcrop called "Pahrump Hills," which is a section of the mountain's basal geological unit, called the Murray formation. Three days later, the rover completed a "mini-drill" procedure at the selected drilling target, "Confidence Hills," to assess the target rock's suitability for drilling. A mini-drill activity last month determined that a rock slab under consideration then was not stable enough for full drilling, but Confidence Hills passed this test.

The rock is softer than any of the previous three targets where Curiosity has collected a drilled sample for analysis.

NASA rover drill pulls first taste from Mars mountain
This southeastward-looking vista from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the "Pahrump Hills" outcrop and surrounding terrain seen from a position about 70 feet (20 meters) northwest of the outcrop. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Between the mini-drill test and the sample-collection drilling, researchers used tools on Curiosity's mast and robotic arm for close-up inspection of geometrically distinctive features on the nearby surface of the rock.

These features on the Murray formation mudstones are the accumulations of resistant materials. They occur both as discrete clusters and as dendrites, where forms are arranged in tree-like branching. By investigating the shapes and chemical ingredients in these features, the team hopes to gain information about the possible composition of fluids at this Martian location long ago.

The next step will be to deliver the rock-powder sample into a scoop on the rover's arm. In the open scoop, the powder's texture can be observed for an assessment of whether it is safe for further sieving, portioning and delivery into Curiosity's internal laboratory instruments without clogging hardware. The instruments can perform many types of analysis to identify chemistry and mineralogy of the source rock.

NASA rover drill pulls first taste from Mars mountain
This image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows an example of a type of geometrically distinctive feature that researchers are examining at a mudstone outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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Sep 26, 2014
Analysis of drilled rocks there disclosed an ancient lakebed environment that, more than three billion years ago

Sigh, not again. The "cite a theory as a fact" thing happens too often in "science".

The total amount of rock examined from Mars by rovers could fit inside a small pouch, and here they go citing an "age" for the environment.

Dating an entire mountain or region based on a few hand-fuls of dirt is pretty darn silly.

Sep 26, 2014
Sigh, not again, someone who doesn't know what theories, observations and facts are.

When you do statistics on all of these, you find that there is no quantifiable difference between them. In measurement theory, hypothesis testing is used to quantify observations. And of course it is used to quantify other hypotheses too, like "hypotheses" and "sets of hypotheses" (theories).

Those that pass testing are facts. Such as the fact that Curiosity saw rocks that are more than 3 billion years old. It is the first local dating, and it is accepted by geologists.


Sep 26, 2014

"The second rock Curiosity drilled for a sample on Mars, which scientists nicknamed "Cumberland," is the first ever to be dated from an analysis of its mineral ingredients while it sits on another planet. A report by Kenneth Farley of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and co-authors, estimates the age of Cumberland at 3.86 billion to 4.56 billion years old. This is in the range of earlier estimates for rocks in Gale Crater, where Curiosity is working."

And of course geologists never date "a few hand-fuls of dirt", that is a pretty darn silly idea. They date samples from known layers that are deposited over entire regions. (See the link.)

Could we please have less (invalid) opinion and more (googeable) science here?

Sep 26, 2014
Dating "Rocks" and dating the "mountain" aren't the same thing.

"Rocks" and "Rock Layers" may be older than the formation itself.

Do you know what "inclusions" are?

Some are much older rocks and even micro-crystals which have been subducted or otherwise perhaps partially re-melted and incorporated into new rock, having survived the process.

Some are "intrusions" where magma melts back through cracks,a nd then hardens without necessarily reaching the surface.

An "inclusion" may be sedimentary rock, metamorphic rock, or even older igneous rocks, though typically it will become metamorphic in most cases when exposed to that much heat and/or pressure, particulary at the base of a mountain.

However, Mars has much less surface gravity, so a rock would need to be much deeper to undergo the same heat and pressure.

In any case, you could be driling into "new" rock, or you could be drilling into "re-melted" rock, in which case your dating woudl be off if you didn't realize it.

Sep 26, 2014
A few 2-inch deep core sample isn't enough to tell you whether you're drilling into a non-conformity or a disconformity of some sort, because you don't have a large enough sample of deep enough cores to compare, so your radio dating of the sample has no context.

So what if the "rock" is 3 or 4 billion years old? The asteroids are too. That doesn't mean the mountain is 3 billion years old, because it's obviously younger than the stuff it's made from, and if that rock is an inclusion(from an older feature), then it's obviously much younger than an inclusion.

Sep 26, 2014
NOw in the second picture, that's sedimentary rock, which is even worse. It could have come from anywhere, from a feature of any age pre-dating the formation itself. Thus any radio-isotopes inside this "rock" aren't even dating the rock itself, but are dating the previous formation which eroded and was deposited there. Radio-isotopes "age" doesn't get reset just because they get washed away.

That's quite a different animal entirely.

Sep 26, 2014

why are you fighting the results of the rover? It's the best anyone can do right now, and there are LOTS of people looking at this. Any problems or questionable material would be held back, rather than published in public.

Trust this initial stuff. Nit-pick about the details later, after they start publishing stuff that might be questionable.

I do agree with you complaint about small sample sizes, because that's a recurring theme with me, but give this thing time. The rover is still working, and the results ARE being presented as one-of-a-kind samples which need to be confirmed later. They aren't making any claims which they aren't SURE are beyond any scrutiny. Your concerns might be valid in some situations, but give the experts a little credit on this one.

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