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NASA to Mars rover Curiosity: Drill, baby, drill

Robotic rover heading toward what could be its first drilling site on Martian surface

After about five months on the Martian surface, NASA's rover Curiosity is preparing to drill its first rock on Mars.

NASA announced Tuesday that Curiosity is headed toward a flat rock with pale veins that scientists are hopeful will yield clues to the history of water on the planet. When the SUV-sized rover reaches the rock and if it checks out as planned, it will be the first to be drilled on the Red Planet.

"Drilling into a rock to collect a sample will be this mission's most challenging activity since the landing," said Mars Science Laboratory project manager, Richard Cook. "It has never been done on Mars. The drill hardware interacts energetically with Martian material we don't control. We won't be surprised if some steps in the process don't go exactly as planned the first time through."

The super rover is on a two-year mission to help scientists figure out if Mars has, or has ever had, an environment that could support life, even life in a microbial form.

So far the rover, which carries 17 cameras and 10 scientific instruments, has made some important strides.

Last October, it became the first NASA rover to scoop Martian soil into onboard analytical instruments.

In late September, NASA reported that Curiosity discovered evidence of a thousand-year water flow on Mars. The finding came in the form of an outcropping of rocks that appeared to have been heaved up by a vigorous water flow.

With NASA's plans to drill, scientists plan to analyze the rock and any information about its mineral and chemical composition.

The scientists are hoping the rover will drill on flat-lying bedrock within a shallow depression. Curiosity's science team decided to investigate this area for a first drilling target because orbital images showed fractured ground that cools more slowly each night than nearby terrain does.

"The orbital signal drew us here, but what we found when we arrived has been a great surprise," said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist. "This area had a different type of wet environment than the streambed where we landed, maybe a few different types of wet environments."

Scientists are intrigued by the rock's veins, which, on Earth, are formed when water circulates in fractures.

The targeted rock has been dubbed "John Klein" in tribute to former Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager John W. Klein, who died in 2011.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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