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Curiosity marks six months on Mars with drilling

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Feb 10, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—It's been just over six Earth months since the Mars Curiosity rover made a daring landing on the Red Planet on August 6, 2012. Ever since then, it's been moving slowly around Gale Crater, providing a new window into Mars' early history.

Curiosity is the most advanced Mars rover yet, boasting a suite of instruments that many geologists would love to have in the field themselves. These include features such as a mini oven, robotic arm and the ability to bombard the surface with neutrons in search of water lurking below.

Last week, Curiosity took its next scientific step forward: using its drill. It carved a test hole about 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) deep in the surface. 

Then on February 9, NASA announced that the rover had drilled a hole 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) wide and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep and picked up a sample - the first time any machine has done that on Mars.

"The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars," stated John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency's science mission directorate.

"This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August."

Before putting the test hole on a rock dubbed "John Klein", NASA pictures of the slab revealed that it had probably been through "one or more episodes of wet environmental conditions," the agency stated.

It is hoped that the sample will reveal more about the interior of the rock, providing more clues as to what sort of environment it was formed in. In September, the rover sent back information to Earth indicating that it was driving along an ancient streambed.

Curiosity imaged two rocky outcrops that scientists said shed rocks as water flowed downslope from Gale Crater's rim.

"From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep," said William Dietrich, Curiosity science co-investigator, in September. 

"Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars, with many different hypotheses about the flows in them. This is the first time we're actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it."

Curiosity's mission is to seek signs of life on Mars, but the rover is not equipped to find life itself. Not all indications in its local environment speak to an easy environment for microbes, however.

In November, the rover released results from its Sample Analysis of Mars (SAM) instrument showing that methane was not detectable using two methods: a mass spectrometer that examines all gases in the atmosphere, and another that focused on carbon dioxide and methane.

"Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all," stated Chris Webster, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee who is the lead investigator for Curiosity's tunable laser spectrometer, in November.

The rover will spend at least two Earth years working on Mars, but it could go for much longer than that. NASA rover Opportunity is now more than nine years into what was originally a 90-day mission.