Curiosity rover drills into "clay-bearing unit" for the first time

NASA's Curiosity rover has been cruising the surface of Mars for a long time now. One of the missions that the rover has been gearing up for is the very first drilling sample gathering to be conducted on what has been called the "clay-bearing unit." That is a large rock that is also called "Aberlady." The announcement marks the first time that curiosity has drilled into this area.

The drilling happened on April 6, and by April 10 the sample that the rover drilled had been whisked away to the internal mineralogy lab of the rover. NASA notes that the drill Curiosity is fitted with easily drilled into the rock. Its last drilling location on the Vera Rubin ridge had much harder to drill rock.

The new sample was the first sample obtained only by rotation of the drill bit. Previous samples required the use of percussive drilling. Curiosity has performed very well for NASA in the seven years it has been on Mars. Drilling into the clay-bearing unit is a significant milestone in the rover's journey up Mount Sharp.

NASA is eager to analyze the sample for trace clay minerals because the minerals usually form in water. One goal of the mission is to shed light on the distant past when Mars is believed to have had a thicker atmosphere and liquid water.

NASA has found clay minerals in mudstones during its journey up the mountain so far. The mudstones formed as river sediment settled into ancient lakes nearly 3.5 billion years ago. These ancient lakes and other water on the planet eventually dried up.

Interestingly, as Curiosity drilled into the clay material, the rock broke apart and lifted out of the surface a bit. NASA says that it intends to drill several more times over the next year.