Mars Curiosity Faces 'Most Challenging' Step - InformationWeek

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Mars Curiosity Faces 'Most Challenging' Step

Rover prepares to drill into rock for first time in search for clues about mineral and chemical makeup and evidence of organic material.

NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet
NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
NASA's Curiosity rover has uncovered new clues indicating that Mars once had moving water on its surface, and it is getting ready to drill into the planet's surface in search of further evidence.

In a Jan. 15 press briefing, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory researchers showed close-up photographs of the shallow depression, dubbed Yellowknife Bay, where the rover is located, about 500 meters west of its landing site. High-resolution photos of sand and rocks taken by Curiosity show signs of the presence of water in the past. Individual grains of sand have rounded edges from being "knocked around, busted up by some process," said Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson and deputy principal investigator for the Mars Science Lab. "Because they're relatively large on the sand size spectrum, [that] indicates water."

The photos have exceptionally sharp resolution, with each pixel just 16 microns across. They're extreme close-ups of the planet's surface, taken from as close as 1 centimeter and of an area smaller than a postage stamp, Yingst said.

[ What does NASA have in store for 2013? Find out here: NASA Details 2013 Plans. ]

NASA scientists were excited to find that some Mars rocks have white veins of what appear to be hydrated calcium sulfates running through them. This shows water was present close to the surface of Mars, according to Nicholas Mangold of the University of Nantes, France and a member of the lab's Chemistry and Camera team.

There has been some buzz on the Internet about an unusual grain of stone photographed by Curiosity, but Yingst wouldn't speculate on its composition. "It's interesting because of its color, luster and shape," she said. "That light color is indicative, but not determinative. It's not something you'd normally use to [distinguish it] from other grains."

NASA will continue to search for signs of water, and ultimately signs of life, as it begins drilling into the Martian surface for the first time. Curiosity is heading toward a nearby rock, where it will conduct its first drilling experiment. The area was chosen because it shows evidence of "a different type of wet environment" than the dry streambed where the vehicle landed in August.

Curiosity has previously scooped Martian soil and analyzed it. Project manager Richard Cook called the upcoming drilling procedure, which will take place within the next two weeks, the mission's "most challenging activity" since the rover landed. The drill will go to a maximum depth of only 5 centimeters, but scientists hope to learn its mineral and chemical composition and the isotope ratios of sediments, and to look for signs of organic material.

The Mars Science Lab team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is assessing "unexpected features" of the Mars landscape revealed by Curiosity's Mast Camera, including rock veins, nodules, cross-bedded layering, holes in the ground and a "lustrous" pebble embedded in sandstone.

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