Drill baby, drill



We came, we saw, we drill. Nasa’s Curiosity rover on Mars has drilled a second rock sample to deliver to its onboard laboratories. The powder was taken from the interior of a target called “Cumberland”, about 2.75m from the site where the rover acquired its first drill sample in February.

Analysis conducted on this earlier powder revealed details of a past environment on Mars that would have been favourable to microbial life. Curiosity’s instruments determined the rock to have been laid down billions of years ago in a benign water setting, possibly a lake, and to retain markers for key chemical and energy conditions required for biology. The new Cumberland sample, which will be delivered to the rover’s Sam and Chemin labs in the coming days, is expected to confirm this assessment.

Curiosity has now spent 280 Martian days in the planet’s equatorial Gale Crater. For most of this period, the robot has been investigating a small depression called Yellowknife Bay. The location is about 500m east of Curiosity’s August 2012 touchdown point. The mission team is keen to get the robot moving towards the main mission destination – the foothills of the big mountain that dominates the crater floor. It will likely take many months to get to Aeolus Mons (also known as Mount Sharp). When Curiosity does set out on this big drive, it will stop briefly to re-examine some rocks it saw on the way into Yellowknife Bay.

Mars, close up


A raw-color version of the mosaic is available at here. Raw color shows the scene’s colors as they would look in a typical smart-phone camera photo.

This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced color adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting. White-balancing helps scientists recognize rock materials based on their experience looking at rocks on Earth. The Martian sky would look more of a butterscotch color to the human eye. White balancing yields an overly blue hue in images that have very little blue information, such as Martian landscapes, because the white balancing tends to overcompensate for the low inherent blue content.

Mount Sharp, also called Aeolis Mons, is a layered mound in the center of Mars’ Gale Crater, rising more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater floor, where Curiosity has been working since the rover’s landing in August 2012. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the major destination for the mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called “Yellowknife Bay,” where it has found evidence of a past environment favorable for microbial life.

This mosaic was assembled from dozens of images from the 100-millimeter-focal-length telephoto lens camera mounted on the right side of the Mastcam instrument. The component images were taken during the 45th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s mission on Mars (Sept. 20, 2012). The sky has been filled out by extrapolating color and brightness information from the portions of the sky that were captured in images of the terrain.