Since Curiousity has landed on Mars, it's been roving around finding all manner of... curiosities. Today, it's pulled off an intergalactic first and drilled 6.35cm deep into the red planet's bedrock to obtain a sample. No one — no robot, as ever managed to pull that off before.
6.35cm deep and 1.6cm wide, the hole was drilled into a sample of fine-grained sedimentary bedrock that could hold secrets about Mars' once wet environment. For the next few days, Curiosity will carefully examine the sample and the dust produced by the drilling, beaming its findings back to headquarters here on Earth.
But before Curiosity or any Earth-bound scientests can get a good look at the results, a little of the dust will be used to blast off the internal surfaces of the drill bit assembly to make damn sure there's nothing from Earth to contaminate the Martian sample. After all, this is a pretty big deal. John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate puts it this way:
The most advanced planetary robot ever designed is now a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars. This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America.
Once collected, powder from the sample will be shuffled over a sieve to get rid of any fragments that are larger than six-thousandths of an inch across. The finer powder will filter on through to the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments that will do the actual analysing.
It's not every day that you drill into the surface of an alien planet with a hulking, multi-million dollar remote control rover for the first time. Here's to hoping we find something good. [NASA]