After a weeks-long round of hole-drilling and laser-zapping, NASA's Curiosity rover is packing up its sample rock dust and getting ready to resume its road trip to a Martian mountain.
Curiosity's onboard drill bored a half-inch-wide, 2.6-inch-deep hole into a sandstone rock nicknamed Windjana, and then used its ChemCam instrument to blast a series of laser shots into the hole's wall as well as two other rock-sampling targets (called "Stephen" and "Neil"). ChemCam can analyze the light given off by those blasts to figure out what the rock is made of.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
The Mars Hand Lens Imager on the Curiosity rover took a close look at the hole drilled into Windjana on May 13. This nighttime view is illuminated by the imager's light-emitting diodes. A series of dots can be seen in the hole as well as in a grayish patch to the right. Those are blast marks from the laser that's part of the ChemCam sampling device.
Two other instruments, SAM and CheMin, will perform different types of chemical analyses on the rock dust that was gathered up from Curiosity's drill tailings and stored aboard the rover. Past such samplings have revealed much about Mars' ancient habitability.
Those chemical studies can be conducted during future breaks in Curiosity's journey toward 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) Mount Sharp, also known as Aeolis Mons. The 1-ton, six-wheeled rover is expected to resume its 5-mile (8-kilometer) trek within days.
Mission managers expect Mount Sharp's layered rocks to provide key insights into the geological history of the Red Planet — and whether it had all the chemical building blocks needed for life.
First published May 16 2014, 2:24 PM
Alan Boyle is the science editor for NBC News Digital. He joined MSNBC.com at its inception in July 1996, and took on the science role in July 1997 with the landing of NASA's Mars Pathfinder probe. Boyle is responsible for coverage of science and space for NBCNews.com.
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Boyle joined NBCNews.com from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he was the foreign desk editor from 1987 to 1996. Boyle has won awards for science journalism from numerous organizations, including the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Science Writers. Boyle is the author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference." He lives in Bellevue, Wash.