Time to Drill…

Things have started moving in Gale Crater. It’s about to get serious.

For the past couple of weeks Curiosity has been taking a long, hard look at an area of rock on the floor of Gale Crater, looking for a suitable place to use her drill for the first time. In this fantastic panorama assembled by UMSF’s Damien Bouic you can see the rover studying the rocky area with the instruments on the end of its robot arm… click on it to enlarge it, it’s a beauty…!


So, soon Curiosity will be drilling into that rock, the last test of a major rover system left I think. This is going to be very exciting for planetary scientists, because they’ll be able to sample and study, for the first time, the minerals beneath the surface of rocks on Mars. The results won’t look like muh to us – graphs with squiggles and lines, and error bars and whatever on them – but they will tell planetary geologists SO much about Mars that I bet they’re not sleeping they’re so excited by what’s to come.

Anyway, that drill… Curiosity is a HUGE thing, as you know, a real monster truck on Mars! Nuclear powered… laser gun… wheels as big as a family car’s… it must have a stonking great drill on it, right? Like this kick-ass rover from the much-maligned but brilliant film “Armageddon”..?

a rover

Er, not quite. Here, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is the drill that Curiosity will be using…



I know what you’re thinking… “They’re going to drill into Mars with THAT?!?!?!” Well, yes, they are, and the reason why it doesn’t have to look like one of Harry Stamper’s asteroid-excavating monsters is because it doesn’t have to go anywhere near as deep down, and, of course, BECAUSE IT’S REAL!!! šŸ™‚ Things in science fiction films are always bigger than they would need to be in real life, usually because sci fi films have bigger budgets than most space missions…

Anyway, let’s take a closer look at that drill bit, courtesy of MSL’s ChemCam camera…


I think we can tidy that up a bit, hang on…

drill z

Wow.. that looks rather… um… oh, how to say this politely…


No, that’s not crude. That’s effecient. It looks that way because it has a job to do, and that job isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s a job we’ve ben doing for many thousands of years.

When I saw that picture it rang a bell with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then this morning I went onto UMSF and there was an image created by my great Australian mate AstroO, who had absolutely nailed it…


Oh my god… look at that… how powerful an image is that?!?! Just consider the gulf in time between those two images, how many generations have passed between them being taken. Just think, there’s a good chance that the person who made and then used that stone blade on the left looked up at the night sky and saw Mars shining in it, a star as red as the blood that covered the blade as it was used to hack and slice meat from the bones of animals they killed for food. And then, who knows how many tens of thousands of years later, a piece of metal, forged by distant descendants of that hunter, but keeping the same basic shape, is now going to be used ON that blood red “star”, to feed our hunger for knowledge. That’s a hell of a thing isn’t it? A hell of a thing.

A couple of years ago my amazing friend Bev – also Australian! – sent me a present for my birthday, which, when I opened it, absolutely blew me away…


Yes, a stone blade, just like the one in AstroO’s brilliant image. I keep that blade near my computer, and look at it often, it’s one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever been sent. Whenever I look at it I feel connected to the past in a quite spooky, quite glorious way. I take it from the box and feel the weight of it in my hand, turning it over and over, admiring the workmanship, trying to imagine what thoughts were going through its maker’s head as they carefully chipped away at it, fashioning a blade which they would use for keeping themselves and their family alive. When I saw that drill bit on the end of Curiosity’s drill I couldn’t help feeling a connection with it too, the same sort of connection. That is a tool, made by someone – probably more than one person, I know, but a person designed it, and it was probably finished off by a single person, working at a machine or a computer, getting it just right, just perfect – to do a job, but on a totally different planet, far, far away from Earth.

When I look as AstroO’s picture, you know what else I think? I think “Hey, we turned out okay didn’t we?” I know that Mankind has its problems, and large numbers of our troubled species are absolute nutters who find perverse joy in slaughtering their fellow men and women, but the vast majority of us are decent, and help each other, and work hard to make a good life for ourselves and our loved ones. I look at that image and it hits me just how far we HAVE come. Today’s papers are full of religious fanatics, terrorist nutters, greedy bankers, overpaid sportsmen and abused children. It’s easy to believe Mankind is bankrupt, that we’re a waste of space, that our society is doomed and Earth would be better off without us. But look at that picture again. With all our faults, with all our troubles, we still dare to dream amazing dreams, we still reach out towards almost impossible goals, and we succeed.

Many UFO fanatics believe that we’re being monitored by alien beings right now, that their spacecraft are up in orbit, cloaked from our view, and from them they watch over everything we do. If that’s true, they must be very confused by us, seeing pictures like that. Just imagine this morning’sĀ  conversation on the Bridge between their versions of Kirk and Spock, as they peered at AstroO’s image on the big screen…

“So, Science Officer Thargggg, let me get this straight: you’re telling me that the same stupid monkey species which has built enough nuclear weapons to destroy their world a hundred times over, and has created plagues that could wipe themselves out, the ssme species that straps bombs to their females and children and deliberately blows them up, made THAT too..?”

Well, yes, Captain Zlott, we did. Go figure.

One day Curiosity will be in a museum on Mars, displayed lovingly in the glow of spotlights and softlights, for people from across the whole solar system to see. I hope that, in a case next to her, there’ll be one of the stone age blades her builders’ ancestors made all those thousands of years ago. I’ll even let them have mine if they want. I’m sure Bev wouldn’t mind, would you Bev?

I must admit I’ve been getting rather bored by Curiosity of late. The images have been on my screen, but they haven’t spoken to me like they always used to. But looking at that little drill bit sent a shiver up my spine, it really did.

We’re going to drill on Mars. On Mars!


Note: if you want to know lots of technical details about MSL’s drill, Emily Lakdawalla has written a brilliant piece about it on her blog for the Planetary Society…

And I wrote about how we’re leaving our mark, as a species, on Mars, in a previous post here


3 thoughts on “Time to Drill…

  1. Birgit says:

    Yes, Stu, that`s all right, but after ” Drill “—all testet and proven to work—Cury go hopefully to Mount Sharp and ROVING a little bit !

  2. Astro0 says:

    Hey Stu, I’m glad my image stirred those thoughts in you. The extra connection you made for me was the idea that the stone user looked up at Mars long ago and wondered what it was. Here we are so many ‘journeys’ later and now on Mars to answer our ancestors question. Thanks for making that connection for me.

  3. atomoid says:

    Stupendous article, indeed we have come so far http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0vlrTVC2tQ

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