Mars Rover Curiosity Drills 1st Hole into Huge Martian Mountain

Curiosity Drills Into Mount Sharp
This image from the Curiosity rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager camera shows the first sample-collection hole drilled into Mount Sharp, the mission's main science destination. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has taken its first bite out of the giant mountain that it crossed interplanetary space to explore.

On Wednesday (Sept. 24), the 1-ton Curiosity rover drilled 2.6 inches (6.7 centimeters) into an outcrop at the base of the towering Mount Sharp, which rises 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky. Curiosity collected samples of powdered rock, with the aim of delivering them to the rover's onboard instruments for analysis.

"This drilling target is at the lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in the nearby hills," Curiosity deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "This first look at rocks we believe to underlie Mount Sharp is exciting because it will begin to form a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed, and what led to its growth." [Mars Rover Curiosity's Latest Amazing Photos]

Mount Sharp has been Curiosity's main science destination since before the rover's November 2011 launch. Mission scientists want Curiosity to climb up through the mountain's foothills, reading the rocks for clues about why Mars shifted from a warm, wet world in the ancient past to the cold, dry planet we know today.

Curiosity didn't head for the mountain immediately after touching down inside the Red Planet's Gale Crater in August 2012. Instead, Curiosity spent nearly a year examining rocks close its landing site.

This work, which included three separate sample-collecting drilling operations, paid off; the rover's observations allowed mission scientists to determine that the area harbored a stream-and-lake system billions of years ago that could have supported microbial life, if any existed there.

This image taken by the Curiosity rover's Mast Camera shows the "Pahrump Hills" outcrop and surrounding terrain, as seen from a position about 70 feet (20 meters) northwest of the outcrop. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Map showing the route driven by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity from its August 2012 landing site to the "Pahrump Hills" outcrop at the Mount Sharp. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Curiosity started the 5-mile (8 km) trek to Mount Sharp in July 2013 and reached an outcrop at the mountain's base called "Pahrump Hills" last week. The arrival marked a major shift in the mission, which for the last 15 months had prioritized making tracks to get to Mount Sharp.

"We're putting on the brakes to study this amazing mountain," said Curiosity deputy project manager Jennifer Trosper of JPL. "Curiosity flew hundreds of millions of miles to do this."

On Monday (Sept. 22), the rover test-drilled a target rock on Pahrump Hills to gauge its suitability for sample collection, NASA officials said. That trial went well, so the mission team went ahead with a full-on drilling operation on Wednesday.

The mission team will soon deliver the powdered sample to Curiosity's open scoop, where they can observe it to determine if it's safe to send along to the rover's internal instruments, which are known as SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) and CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy).

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.