Curiosity Rover Conquers New Ground On Mars

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

After much planning, long hours of observation, and a change of scenery meant to unravel even more of the red planet’s deep mysteries, the Mars Curiosity rover has hit a new historic milestone in its trek to explore and investigate the Martian landscape. This week, the intrepid robot successfully snagged its first drilled sample in its new home – a region called the “clay-bearing unit” that has been on the mission’s radar ever since Curiosity first landed on Mars in August of 2012.

While the resilient Mars explorer has sunk its drill into the arid Martian ground many times before – sometimes even stumbling upon stubborn rocks that wouldn’t yield to the might of its instrument, as reported by The Inquisitr last summer – this particular drilling operation was a very special one for the Curiosity team. For one thing, this latest achievement allowed the scientists to achieve their long-held dream of bagging a sample from one of their most sought-after drilling sites, notes CNET.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the Curiosity team has been anxiously waiting to drill in this particular region of Mars since before the mission even took off from Earth. Located to the south of the Vera Rubin Ridge – a complex mosaic of rock on the slopes of Mount Sharp, one that the rover has called home for more than a year – the clay-bearing unit fosters a variety of geological features thought to hold important clues about Mars’ past. The area appears to be rich in mineral clays, which has prompted scientists to speculate that water may have played a key role in its formation.

Mosaic of the famous 'clay-bearing unit' near the edge of Vera Rubin Ridge, captured by NASA's Curiosity rover on February 3.
Mosaic of the famous 'clay-bearing unit' near the edge of Vera Rubin Ridge, captured by Curiosity's Mastcam on February 3.Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

To get a better look at this tantalizing region of Mars, the Curiosity rover left Vera Rubin Ridge in late January to venture into the pristine, unexplored terrain and get a taste of the red planet’s ancient clay deposits, as reported by The Inquisitr at the time.

“NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spied a strong clay ‘signal’ here long before Curiosity landed in 2012. Pinpointing the source of that signal could help the science team understand if a wetter Martian era shaped this layer of Mount Sharp,” notes the JPL.

After relocating to its new base of operations and attentively scouring the terrain for the past several weeks, Curiosity finally began drilling at the clay-bearing unit on April 6 – a.k.a. Sol 2370 of the Mars mission. The rover set its sights on a slab of rock nicknamed “Aberlady” and managed to retrieve a precious drill sample – one that was safely stored inside its mineralogy lab on April 10 (Sol 2374), the JPL announced yesterday.

Image of the drill hole made by NASA's Curiosity rover at its new home in the red planet's famous 'clay-bearing unit.'
Curiosity's first drill hole at its new home on Mars, photographed by the rover's Mastcam on April 6.Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Curiosity has been on the road for nearly seven years,” Jim Erickson, Curiosity project manager at the JPL, said in a statement.

“Finally drilling at the clay-bearing unit is a major milestone in our journey up Mount Sharp.”

But snagging the long-awaited sample was not the only historic feat pulled off by Curiosity in its new location on Mars. The six-wheeled rover also managed to add to its drilling prowess by collecting the sample exclusively through the rotation of its drill bit.

As it turned out, Curiosity’s new drilling site boasted such a soft terrain that the rover was able to get the job done without having to rely on its new and improved percussion drilling technique – Feed Extended Drilling, or FED, successfully implemented last year, as previously covered by The Inquisitr.

“It was so soft, in fact, that the drill didn’t need to use its percussive technique, which is helpful for snagging samples from harder rock,” detailed the JPL.

“This was the mission’s first sample obtained using only rotation of the drill bit.”

Not only did Curiosity’s drill easily chew through the clay-bearing bedrock, but it also gave “Aberlady” a makeover. In a set of before-and-after images released yesterday by the JPL, the rocks around the drilled area appeared to have become dislodged from the Martian ground when the rover retracted the drill bit.

The Curiosity team is eager to get the new sample analyzed and to begin deciphering new clues about Mars’ ancient past.

“Each layer of this mountain is a puzzle piece. They each hold clues to a different era in Martian history,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at JPL.

“We’re excited to see what this first sample tells us about the ancient environment, especially about water.”