Curiosity Drills Deep into First High Silica Martian Rock on Third Touchdown Anniversary

Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts sample drilling at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right, during August 2015. Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Inset: MAHLI color camera up close image of full depth drill hole at “Buckskin” rock target on Sol 1060. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/ Di Lorenzo
Story updated[/caption]

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover has successfully drilled into the first high silica rock target on Mars after recently discovering this new type of rock that’s unlike any found before – as she is about to mark the 3rd anniversary since the hair-raising touchdown on the Red Planet.

The SUV-sized rover bored a full depth hole into a Mars outcrop at a target dubbed “Buckskin” as commanded by the mission team over the weekend, after first conducting a mini drill test to assess the safety of the intended drill campaign to sample the alien rock interior beneath the Martian crater floor.

“This morning, the MSL operations team was very happy to see that drilling into Buckskin was successful!” said Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

Confirmation of the success of the full depth drilling into “Buckskin” on Sol 1060 at the bright toned “Lion” outcrop came later after receipt of new high resolution images from the rover showing the approximately 1.6 cm (0.63 inch) diameter bore hole next to the initial mini hole test, along with the indicative residue of grey colored tailings from the Martian subsurface seen distributed around the new hole.

“Successful drilling at Buckskin!” added team member Professor John Bridges of the University of Leicester, England, in an update.

“Like the other drill holes this is showing how thin red Mars is,” Bridges elaborated.

Beneath a thin veneer of rusty red colored iron oxide, the Red Planet is remarkably grey as demonstrated by Curiosity’s prior drilling campaigns.

The hole was bored to a full depth of about 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) using the percussion drill on the terminus of the 7 foot-long (2.1 meter-long) robotic arm.

Curiosity rover successfully drills into Martian outcrop at Buckskin rock target at current work site at base of Mount Sharp in August 2015, in this mosaic showing full depth drill hole and initial test hole, with grey colored subsurface tailings and mineral veins on surrounding Red Planet terrain. This high resolution photo mosaic is a multisol composite of color images taken by the mast mounted Mastcam-100 color camera up to Sol 1060, July 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/ Di Lorenzo

Buckskin was “chosen because this sedimentary horizon has some very high silica enrichments,” Bridges explains.

The findings of elevated levels of silicon as well as hydrogen were derived from data collected by Curiosity’s laser-firing Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instruments on certain local area rocks.

Silica is a rock-forming compound containing silicon and oxygen, commonly found on Earth as quartz.

“High levels of silica could indicate ideal conditions for preserving ancient organic material, if present, so the science team wants to take a closer look,” say mission team officials.

See the rover at work reaching out with her robotic arm and drilling into Buckskin, as illustrated in our new mosaics of mastcam and navcam camera raw images created by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo (above and below).

“Buckskin” sits at the base of Mount Sharp, a huge layered mountain that dominates the center of the 96 mile-wide (154 kilometers-wide) Gale Crater landing site.

Exploring the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

The silica enrichment “may have occurred as the Gale sediments were altered by subsurface fluids after burial. As the basaltic composition was altered (as we saw from the clay and Fe oxide at Yellowknife Bay) ultimately a lot of silica is released which can be precipitated at horizons like this,” explains Bridges.

The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover safely touched down on the crater floor on August 5, 2012 following the unprecedented and nail-biting sky crane maneuver that delivered her with pinpoint precision to a landing site nearby Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.

The goal of the drilling is to provide geologic context for Curiosity’s long term climb up the mountains sedimentary layers by collecting samples to assess the habitability of the Red Planet over billions of years of time.

So the plan was for the robot to process and pulverize the samples for eventual delivery to the onboard pair of miniaturized chemistry labs located inside her belly – SAM and CheMin. Tiny samples are fed to a trio of inlet ports on the rover deck through the sieved filters.

Images are taken to document and assess the entire sample collection and delivery process.

After gathering the Buckskin sample, a portion was transferred to the robots scoop for inspection.

Then the first portion was successfully fed into CheMin for inorganic elemental analysis over the weekend.

“The activities planned for last weekend completed successfully, including sample dropoff to CheMin and analysis of the minerals present,” Herkenhoff confirmed.

The one ton robots next steps involve “dumping the portion of the drill sample that has not been sieved and Mastcam, ChemCam, MAHLI, and APXS observations of the dump pile. ChemCam and Mastcam will also observe nearby targets “Martz” and “Mountain Home.” MAHLI will image the drill hole, tailings and CheMin inlet at night using its LEDs for illumination.”

Curiosity MAHLI camera image taken of Buckskin drill hole on Sol 1060 on July 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

After completing these science activities, the six wheeled rover will move on to the next exciting destination.

“It’s been a great couple of weeks at the Lion outcrop, but it’s time to move on,” says Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in the latest mission update from today, August 4, Sol 1065.

“After a successful investigation that included observations by almost every science instrument, we’re getting ready to drive away tomorrow. That means that today (and tomorrow before we drive) is the last call for science observations.”

For about the past two months, the six wheeled robot has been driving around and exploring a geological contact zone named “Marias Pass” – an area on lower Mount Sharp, by examining the rocks and outcrops with her suite of state-of-the-art science instruments.

“Marias Pass” is a geological context zone where two rock types overlap – pale mudstone meets darker sandstone.

The prior hole was drilled at Telegraph Peak on Feb. 24, 2015, on Sol 908.

Curiosity recently celebrated 1000 Sols of exploration on Mars on May 31, 2015 – detailed here with our Sol 1000 mosaic also featured at Astronomy Picture of the Day on June 13, 2015.

NASA’s Martian Curiosity rover looks backs to 1000 Sols of science and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet. Robot wheel tracks lead back through valley dunes. Gale Crater rim seen in the distant hazy background. Sol 997 (May 28, 2015) navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/
Featured on APOD on June 13, 2015

As of today, Sol 1065, August 4, 2015, she has driven some 11 kilometers and taken over 256,000 amazing images.

Curiosity has already accomplished her primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on the Red Planet – at the Yellowknife Bay area – that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life in the ancient past when Mars was far wetter and warmer billions of years ago.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right. Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/ Di Lorenzo
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

Recent Posts

Webb Completes Its Second Year of Operations

What happens when a spiral and an elliptical galaxy collide? To celebrate the second anniversary…

5 hours ago

Galaxies Regulate their Own Growth so they Don’t Run Out of Star Forming Gas

Look at most spiral or barred spiral galaxies and you will see multiple regions where…

1 day ago

Mapping the Stars in a Dwarf Galaxy to Reveal its Dark Matter

Dark matter is curious stuff! As the name suggests, it’s dark making it notoriously difficult…

2 days ago

A Close Pulsar Measures 11.4 km Across

When massive stars detonate as supernovae, they leave often behind a pulsar. These fast rotating…

2 days ago

Solar Flares and Solar Magnetic Reconnection Get New Spotlight in Two Blazing Studies

Two recent studies published in The Astrophysical Journal discuss findings regarding solar flare properties and…

2 days ago

‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Points to the Past and Future of Moonshot Marketing

In a new movie titled “Fly Me to the Moon,” a marketing consultant played by Scarlett Johansson…

2 days ago