Mars Curiosity has another scientific first under its belt.
The Mini Cooper-sized rover successfully collected a tiny sample of powder - about a tablespoon worth - as it drilled into a Mars rock earlier this month, scientists said today.
"This is the first time any rover has drilled into a rock to collect a sample anywhere but on Earth," said Louise Jandura, an engineer on the Curiosity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Curiosity mission is designed to look for signs that life once existed - or might still exist - on Mars.
When the rock sample is analyzed by Curiosity's onboard laboratory in coming days, the results will be beamed back to eager scientists on Earth.
The team is already are excited because of signs in the Martian geology suggesting the rocks formed in liquid water, a fundamental requirement for life as we know it.
"The rocks in this area have a really rich geological history, and they have they have the potential to give us information about multiple interactions between water and rock," said Joel Hurowitz, a Curiosity sampling scientist at NASA JPL.
Photos of the drill site show the traditional rust-colored Martian soil has been brushed away, revealing a moon-gray colored rock underneath.
"It's better to have a gray color than a red color," said John Grotzinger, Curiosity's chief scientist.
Oxidation that turns the soil rust-red destroys organic compounds, Grotzinger explained. Any signs of past life would be more likely protected in the deeper grayish-rock, but Grotzinger said it's still like looking for a needle in a haystack.
"It's still an accident of fate to preserve organics," Grotzinger said on a conference call with reporters.
Curiosity touched down on the red planet in August.
The 2.5 inch hole was drilled Feb. 8 into a rock dubbed "John Klein," after a deputy project manager who died in 2011.
The $2.5 billion rover will eventually begin driving toward the base of a three-mile-high mountain known as Mt. Sharp.