719294main_pia16705-946Photo is white-balanced to show what it might look like on earth, obtained by Mastcam on December 13, 2012   Photo credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’S Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity’s latest attempt to discover if the Red Planet held water at some time involves drilling into a flat rock veined with what might be calcium sulfate, a possible clue about past water.

When water circulates through fractures and deposits minerals along the sides of the fracture, forming veins.  The veins are characteristic of the stratigraphically lowest unit in the “Sheepbed” locality of the “Yellowknife Bay” area where Curiosity recently found “a flower.”

The specific site where the drilling will occur is named after John Klein, a former deputy project manager who died in 2011.

If further engineering test and surveys are encouraging, the MSL will use its high-powered drill for the first time.

The drill, located at the end of a 7-foot-long robot arm, will first make a few test holes to rid itself of any lingering contamination from Earth.  Clean samples from the rock will be placed into the onboard laboratory to analyze their chemical and mineral composition.

In a statement, project manager Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena said, “Drilling into a rock to collect a sample will be this mission’s most challenging activity since the landing.  It has never been done on Mars.  We won’t be surprised if some steps in the process don’t go exactly as planned the first time through.”

The area surrounding “John Klein” contains unusual geological features, such as veins, nodules, a pebble embedded in sandstone and what may be holes in the ground.  And scientists are curious to discover why this area cools off more slowly at night than does the surrounding terrain.

Lead scientist, John Grotzinger with the California Institute of Technology believes the rocks were once saturated in water. In a press release, he said, “This area had a different type of wet environment than the streambed where we landed—maybe a few different types of wet environments.”

Sources:   SmartPlanet, January 16, 2013       Space.com, January 15, 2013    NASA.gov, January 15, 2013


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