Fresh from being given a clean bill of health, NASA's Spirit rover drilled its first tiny hole in a rock on the surface of Mars, scientists said Saturday.
“We made some history here. We put the first planned hole on Mars,” said Stephen Gorevan, who heads the payload team for Spirit's rock abrasion tool, or RAT.
The RAT, which is equipped with small, diamond-shaped heads, cut a tenth of an inch (2.7 millimeters) deep into a small area of a sharply angled rock dubbed Adirondack. The circular hole, measuring about 2 inches (45 millimeters) wide, could give scientists clues to Mars’ geologic past.
“The rock gave us a lot of resistance,” Gorevan said. “We needed three hours to go this deep.”
The football-sized rock is believed to be made of basalt, a volcanic material. An image of the rock shows depressions that resemble the eye and open mouth of the “Pac-Man” video game figure.
Spirit's microscopic imager and spectrometers will be used to analyze the composition of the rock's fresh interior — just as a geologist on Earth might crack open a rock and check what's inside.
Spirit has spent more than a month on Mars as part of an $820 million mission that includes its twin, Opportunity. The objective of the mission is to determine whether liquid water persisted on ancient Mars long enough to support the development of life.
Spirit was disabled by computer problems for more than two weeks, but scientists declared Friday that the rover was completely "healed." The rover drilled into the rock as it remained parked but was expected to begin roaming the rocky surface within the next few days.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Opportunity is surveying an outcropping of bedrock within the 72-foot-wide (22-meter-wide) crater where it landed Jan. 24. The rover's mini-thermal emission spectrometer already has found ample evidence of hematite, an iron oxide mineral that can form either through interaction with liquid water or through volcanic activity.
A rock formation nicknamed Snout would provide the first-ever opportunity to study Martian bedrock up close. An analysis of the formation's fine layering could provide further evidence that the region's geology was shaped by water.
Scientists had hoped Opportunity would reach the rock by Friday, but mission manager Matt Wallace said the rover fell slightly short of the mark — most likely because its six wheels were slipping on the crater's sandy incline.
Due to the distance between Mars and Earth, the rover can't be steered in real time: Instead, it gets its driving instructions during communication sessions, executes those instructions and then reports back the results.
As the rover's remote-control drivers get more experience with the terrain, the rover's movements will become more precise, Wallace said.
Each of the rovers was designed for a primary mission lasting 90 days, but mission managers say the solar-powered spacecraft could keep going for a significantly longer time.