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NASA to reveal contents of drilled Martian rock

Tue, 03/12/2013 - 12:54pm
ALICIA CHANG - AP Science Writer - Associated Press

The Mars rover Curiosity drilled into its first rock a month ago. Now scientists will reveal what's inside.

Gathering at NASA headquarters Tuesday, the rover team will detail the minerals and chemicals found in a pinch of ground-up rock.

The results come seven months after Curiosity made a dramatic landing in an ancient crater near the equator. It has been slow going since then as engineers learn to handle the car-size rover, which is far more tech-savvy than anything that has landed before on the red planet

While previous Mars spacecraft carried tools to grind into rocks, Curiosity was the first to collect a pulverized sample from deep inside. The complex exercise—played out over several weeks—involved boring a hole 2 ½ inches deep, sifting the powder and running it through its onboard laboratories.

By analyzing the crushed rock, researchers hope to determine whether the landing spot ever had the right conditions to support primitive life in the form of microscopic organisms. They already have one hint of a watery past — an ancient streambed that Curiosity crossed to get to the flat bedrock, a pit stop to its ultimate destination.

Over the years, Mars spacecraft in orbit and on the surface have beamed back a wealth of information about the planet's geology. Scientists have also been able to examine pieces of rocks from Mars that have occasionally landed on Earth. Several places on Mars—now a frigid desert—show evidence of a warmer and wetter environment early in the planet's history.

One of the main reasons Curiosity was sent to Gale Crater was because images from space spied signs of clay layers at the base of a mountain. The rover was supposed to start the trek there before the new year, but instrument checks took longer than expected.

Despite a pokey start, scientists have been pleased with the mission. The biggest problem to plague Curiosity so far is computer-related, preventing it from doing science experiments for several days.

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