Mars rover readies first rock drilling

2013-01-16 07:28
Mars as seen from the Curiosity rover. (AP) (AP)

Mars as seen from the Curiosity rover. (AP) (AP)

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Washington - The Mars rover Curiosity will soon begin to drill into the Red Planet for the first time, mission officials said on Tuesday ahead of the highly anticipated endeavour.

Scientists behind the $2.5bn mission also explained the nature of the small "Martian flower", which had caused a lot of buzz online because it was strikingly different from the surrounding rock.

Aileen Yingst, of the Planetary Science Institute, said that what could have passed as a flower was in fact a relatively large mineral grain or pebble.

"All of these are sedimentary rocks, telling us Mars had environments actively depositing material here," Yingst said. "The different grain sizes tell us about different transport conditions."

Curiosity is travelling toward a flat rock with pale veins that scientists hope will provide clues about any water that might have existed on Mars.

Unexpected features

"Drilling into a rock to collect a sample will be this mission's most challenging activity since the [6 August] landing. It has never been done on Mars," said Richard Cook of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"The drill hardware interacts energetically with Martian material we don't control. We won't be surprised if some steps in the process don't go exactly as planned the first time through."

Curiosity will collect samples from inside the "John Klein" rock - named in honour of a former Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2012 - and analyse them to determine their chemical and mineral composition.

The rover's cameras have shown several unexpected features on the rock, including veins, nodules, cross-bedded layering, a lustrous pebble embedded in sandstone and possibly some holes in the ground.

The mission, set to last at least two years, aims to study the Martian environment to prepare for a possible future manned mission.

US President Barack Obama has vowed to send humans to the planet by 2030.

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