Historic First Use of Drill on Mars Set for Jan. 31 – Curiosity’s Sol 174

Image caption: Curiosity will conduct Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at this spot where the robotic arm is pressing down onto the Red Planet’s surface at the John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals. The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) is in contact with the ground. This panoramic photo mosaic of Navcam camera images was snapped on Jan. 25 & 26, 2013 or Sols 168 & 169 and shows a self-portrait of Curiosity dramatically backdropped with her ultimate destination- Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

The long awaited and history making first use of a drill on Mars is set to happen on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, or Sol 174, by NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover, if all goes well, according to science team member Ken Herkenhoff of the USGS.

Curiosity’s first drilling operation entails hammering a test hole into a flat rock at the location where the rover is currently parked at a scientifically interesting outcrop of rocks with veined minerals called ‘John Klein’. See our mosaics above & below illustrating Curiosity’s current location.

“Drill tailings will not be collected during this test, which will use only the percussion (not rotation) drilling mode,” says Herkenhoff.

Curiosity is an incredibly complex robot that the team is still learning to operate. So the plan could change at a moment’s notice.

The actual delivery of drill tailings to Curiosity’s CheMin and SAM analytical labs is still at least several days or more away and must await a review of results from the test drill hole and further drilling tests.

“We are proceeding with caution in the approach to Curiosity’s first drilling,” said Daniel Limonadi, the lead systems engineer for Curiosity’s surface sampling and science system at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “This is challenging. It will be the first time any robot has drilled into a rock to collect a sample on Mars.”

On Sol 166, Curiosity drove about 3.5 meters to reach the John Klein outcrop that the team chose as the 1st drilling site. The car sized rover is investigating a shallow depression known as ‘Yellowknife Bay’ – where she has found widespread evidence for repeated episodes of the ancient flow of liquid water near her landing site inside Gale Crater on Mars.

In anticipation of Thursday’s planned drilling operation, the rover just carried out a series of four ‘pre-load’ tests on Monday (Jan. 27), whereby the rover placed the drill bit onto Martian surface targets at the John Klein outcrop and pressed down on the drill with the robotic arm. Engineers then checked the data to see whether the force applied matched predictions.

“The arm was left pressed against one of them overnight, to see how the pressure changed with temperature,’ says Herkenhoff.

Image caption: Curiosity’s robotic arm places the robotic arm tool turret and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument on top of John Klein outcrop shown in this photo mosaic taken with the Mastcam 34 camera on Jan. 25, 2013, or Sol 168. The drill bit and prongs are pointing right on the tool turret. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Because huge temperature swings occur on Mars every day (over 65 C or 115 F), the team needs to determine whether there is any chance of excessive stress on the arm while it is pressing the drill down onto the Martian surface. The daily temperature variations can cause rover systems like the arm, chassis and mobility system to expand and contact by about a tenth of an inch (about 2.4 millimeters), a little more than the thickness of a U.S. quarter-dollar coin.

“We don’t plan on leaving the drill in a rock overnight once we start drilling, but in case that happens, it is important to know what to expect in terms of stress on the hardware,” said Limonadi. “This test is done at lower pre-load values than we plan to use during drilling, to let us learn about the temperature effects without putting the hardware at risk.”

The high resolution MAHLI microscopic imager on the arm turret will take close-up before and after images of the outcrop target to assess the success of the drilling operation.

On Sol 175, another significant activity is planned whereby one of the ‘blank” organic check samples brought from Earth will be delivered to the SAM instrument for analysis as a way to check for any traces of terrestrial contamination of organic molecules and whether the sample handing system was successfully cleansed earlier in the mission at the Rocknest windblown sand ripple.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover starts Year 10 investigating never before touched phyllosilicate clay minerals that formed eons ago in flowing liquid water at Endeavour crater – detailed here.

Stay tuned for exciting results from NASA’s Martian sisters.

Ken Kremer

Image caption: View to Mount Sharp from Curiosity at Yellowknife Bay and John Klein outcrop. This photo mosaic was taken with the Mastcam 34 camera on Jan. 27, 2013, or Sol 170. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Curiosity’s Drill in Place for Load Testing Before Drilling. The percussion drill in the turret of tools at the end of the robotic arm of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has been positioned in contact with the rock surface in this image from the rover’s front Hazard-Avoidance Camera (Hazcam). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image caption: Curiosity found widespread evidence for flowing water in the highly diverse, rocky scenery shown in this photo mosaic from the edge of Yellowknife Bay on Sol 157 (Jan 14, 2013) before driving to the John Klein outcrop at upper right. The rover then moved and is now parked at the flat rocks at the John Klein outcrop and is set to conduct historic 1st Martian rock drilling here on Jan. 31, 2013. ‘John Klein’ is filled with numerous mineral veins which strongly suggest precipitation of minerals from liquid water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco 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, SPACE.com, 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 - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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