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Mars rock drilling begins after NASA's helicopter helps plan rover's route

The Mars rover Perseverance extends a robotic arm in preparation to drill a rock sample on Mars. Photo courtesy of NASA
The Mars rover Perseverance extends a robotic arm in preparation to drill a rock sample on Mars. Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Aided by the latest photos from Mars helicopter Ingenuity, NASA's robotic rover Perseverance prepared to drill its first rock sample, the space agency said.

The agency decided the drilling will occur at an area called Crater Floor Fractured Rough. NASA planned to send the first signals Thursday to start the drilling process, which could take several days, according to the agency.

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The area shows promising signs of water activity in the ancient lakebed, said Kevin Hand, the agency's deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration.

The drilling is intended to help NASA "understand the sedimentary history of what's around us and what's in Jezero Crater," Hand said.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science, said in a news release a day earlier, "We are on the threshold of a new era of planetary science and discovery."

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Orbital images have indicated sedimentary rock exists at Jezero, but the rover's instruments are more precise than those and will help scientists better understand Martian geologic history.

The rover requires about 11 days to complete drilling and sampling, as it must receive its instructions from Earth -- hundreds of millions of miles away, according to NASA.

The drill on Perseverance is made of high-grade tungsten carbide, which is used for the toughest jobs on Earth -- although it is not quite as hard as a diamond.

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The first step is to grind the surface of a rock near the planned drilling site to remove any dust or corrosion from the atmosphere. NASA then will analyze the exposed surface with multiple cameras and sensors to judge the composition of the rock. Those images were taken Tuesday and Wednesday.

The rover then will rest for a day before drilling to charge its batteries for the energy-intensive task. The drill also encases the rock sample in a tube that is sealed from the Martian atmosphere for a potential return trip to Earth on a future mission.

The drilling site was not the only one NASA had in mind. Ingenuity took images July 24 of a rock outcrop called Raised Ridges that scientists had hoped would provide more signs of ancient water activity.

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But the helicopter flight told NASA that Raised Ridges wasn't as high or as interesting as scientists once thought, Hand said. Driving to Raised Ridges and having a disappointing outcome would have cost the agency several days of precious exploration time on the planet, he said.

"So far, we're not seeing anything at the Raised Ridges that immediately tells us we have to go there," Hand said. "The reconnaissance done by helicopter proved immensely useful in answering some very basic questions."

The tiny, 4-pound Ingenuity has flown well over a mile in total on Mars. The 10th flight July 24 and the 11th flight early Thursday each set new records for distance -- 254 yards and 415 yards, respectively. Detailed color images from the 11th flight haven't arrived on Earth yet.

Perseverance and Ingenuity were launched from Florida on July 30 last year and arrived at the Red Planet on Feb. 18.

Hand said Perseverance still may scan the Raised Ridges feature when it rolls past them in the coming months, but that no longer is a priority.

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"We're still scratching our heads as to what exactly formed these ridges ... but we've determined they are not as raised as we thought they were," he said.

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The Mars helicopter's 12th flight flight went to the geological wonder that is the “South Séítah” region. It climbed 32.8 feet for a total of 169 seconds and flew about 1,476 feet to scout the area for later scrutiny by the land rover.

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