Curiosity drilling site

Curiosity is expected use its drill for the first time in the next couple of weeks. Its target is a rock on Mars called John Klein, in the Yellowknife Bay. (NASA/JPL-Caltech / January 15, 2013)

The NASA rover Curiosity is set to use its drill for the first time on Mars in a region where water once possibly flowed, scientists said Tuesday. Boring into a rock would be one of the 1-ton rover’s most difficult tasks since arriving on the Red Planet Aug. 5.

“This is something that we waited patiently for and accepted risk in driving to this destination,” said mission scientist John Grotzinger, of Caltech. “This has been very exciting.”

The target is a complex rock in a terrain on the Red Planet called Yellowknife Bay. The rover’s instruments have detected veins, sandstone and other features that scientists believe show evidence of a wet past.

“These rocks were saturated with water,” said Grotzinger, who called the area a “jackpot unit.”
 
 In Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity is on the hunt for organic materials not found in the Gale Crater, where the rover initially landed. “We’ll try to assess the habitability of this environment.” Cook said.

On Earth, it takes moving water to create veins on rocks, so it’s possible that the veined rocks on Mars also once had water running through them, said Nicolas Mangold, a scientist on the mission who works on the rover’s ChemCam instrument.

The rover, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, is expected to attempt its first drilling in the next couple of weeks. The rock that scientists have picked as the first target is named John Klein, after a former JPL deputy project manager who passed away in 2011.

Curiosity will scrub its drill with powdered rock samples before analyzing a sample in its internal chemistry lab. The soil sample will be small, as the drill can only go down about 5 cm.

Project manager Richard Cook said he expects the first drilling expedition to be a little bumpy as they try out the new hardware on Mars. “We won’t be surprised if some steps in the process don’t go exactly as planned the first time through.”

The operation is slightly behind schedule, but the rover has been distracted surveying its new home.

“It does take us awhile to do stuff,” said Cook. “That is a product of the fact that this mission is so complex. There’s a lot of interesting things to look at.”

After spending some time in Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity will begin the trek to Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater.

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