LOS ANGELES — In a Mars first, the Curiosity rover drilled into a rock and prepared to dump an aspirin-size pinch of powder into its onboard laboratories for closer inspection.
The feat marked another milestone for the car-size rover, which landed last summer to much fanfare on an ambitious hunt to determine whether environmental conditions were ever favorable for microbes.
Using the drill at the end of its 7-foot-long robotic arm, Curiosity on Friday chipped away at a flat, veined rock bearing numerous signs of past water flow. After nearly seven minutes, the result was a drill hole 2½ inches deep.
The exercise was so complex that engineers spent several days commanding Curiosity to tap the rock outcrop, drill test holes and perform a “mini-drill” in anticipation of the real show. Images beamed back to Earth showed a fresh borehole next to a shallower test hole Curiosity had made earlier.
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“It was a perfect execution,” drill engineer Avi Okon at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Saturday.
With the maiden drilling done, it will be several days before Curiosity transfers the powder to its instruments to analyze the chemical and mineral makeup.
The cautious approach is by design. Curiosity is the most high-tech spacecraft to land on Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor, and engineers are still learning how to efficiently operate some of the tools being used in the $2.5 billion mission.