Rovers, landers and satellites have been turning up evidence of a wet Martian history for years. Now, NASA's recently landed Curiosity rover has happened upon even more signs of the planet's watery past: veins of hydrated calcium sulfate (visible in the outrcrop pictured above) stretching across the planet's surface — a geological feature which, here on Earth, requires the presence of water to form.
The find has been "a great surprise," according to Mars Science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger, and has just been chosen as Curiosity's very first drilling target. That's exciting for a couple of reasons. One: hello, water. Two: the drilling of Mars is regarded by many NASA engineers to be the rover's most elaborate engineering task since it touched down on the planet back in August.
Cosmic Log's Alan Boyle gives some background on Curiosity's drill:
The drill at the end of Curiosity's 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) robotic arm has not yet been used, but mission managers will command it to drill a series of holes going as deep as 2 inches (5 centimeters) into the rock. The first test holes will serve to clean off any leftover earthly contamination, [said Richard Cook, the mission's project manager]. Grotzinger said the drill will eventually produce scientific samples to be fed into the rover's onboard chemical labs, known as CheMin and SAM.
"What we're hoping to do is sample both the vein-filling material as well as what we call the country rock around it," he said.
The rover's first drilling is slated to take place sometime in the next two weeks. We'll keep you posted on the team's findings.