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Curiosity makes history with scoop – and begins Mars mission in earnest

NASA's Curiosity rover has successfully drilled into bedrock and scooped the sample – a first for Mars exploration. It was the rover's last systems test, meaning the training wheels are off.

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The test hole is modest, even by Curiosity's standards. It measures about 0.6 inches across and is about 2.5 inches deep – roughly half the depth it's capable of reaching. The drill actually sank its first test hole on Feb. 9, but Wednesday's briefing confirmed that the rover had succeeded in transferring the soil into a scoop that delivers the samples to a pair of chemistry labs inside the rover's chassis.

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Past rovers have scrapped beneath the dusty veneer on Mars to reveal water ice or have used a rasp to scrape the surface layers of a rock to get at more-pristine layers. But the drill represents a veritable time machine.

"We're able to get into the interior of these materials ... and really understand the environment these rocks were formed in" without the confounding effects of surface weathering, says Joel Hurowitz, Curiosity's sampling-system scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Already the researchers are seeing color differences between the reddish dust that covers everything on Mars; the light, sandstone-toned rock that appears after the dust is swept away; and the gray, fine-grained material the drill brought to the surface.

At first blush, the rock appears to be siltstone or mudstone, Dr. Hurowitz says. The test rock, with the drill site prosaically labeled "Drill," sits nestled among other flat specimens that together resemble garden flagstones whose gaps are filled with silt. Over the next couple of weeks, the team aims to drill into adjacent rocks at locations dubbed Thundercloud, Werneke, and Brock Inlier.

The science team "is grappling with the explanation for why these are fractured in the way that they are," Hurowitz says.

The gaps could represent fractures triggered by water pressure, he says, or perhaps they represent once-moist areas that shrank as they dried – much like the cracking between plates of dried mud in a drought-dessicated lake bed.

As researchers puzzle over Curiosity's latest data, engineers are dealing with two glitches with the drill and sampling system that for now don't represent show-stoppers but may call for extra care in using the systems.

The drilling process ran more slowly than anticipated because of software glitches. But engineers were able to devise work-arounds. Potentially more troubling is the partial separation of a membrane welded to the top of a sieve on CHIMRA, the sample-delivery system on the end of Curiosity's robotic arm. Soil or drill samples pass through the membrane to ensure the grains are small enough for ChemIn, one of the rover's two internal chemistry labs, to ingest and analyze.

One of two test rovers at JPL also exhibited the separation, which appeared "well into the testing program," says Daniel Limonadi, JPL's lead systems engineer for the sampling and science gear.

"We got extensive use of the sieve even after the fault started all the way through what we would expect" during the length of the missions nominal research program and beyond, he says.

The second test device at JPL showed no signs of the problem after undergoing the same wear and tear as the other test unit.

During an upcoming drill session at the rock area, known as John Klein, the team will shorten the time the sieve runs and reduce "how many times we thwack the hardware" as part of the sieve process, he says.

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