The Mars rover Curiosity has discovered the first mineral match from the Martian surface. The reddish powder from the hole drilled into a mountain yielded the mission's confirmation of a mineral mapped from orbit, the US space agency said in a statement.
"This connects us with the mineral identifications from orbit which can now help guide our investigations as we climb the slope and test hypotheses derived from the orbital mapping," said Curiosity project scientist, John Grotzinger from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
Curiosity collected the powder by drilling into a rock outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp in late September.
The robotic arm delivered a pinch of the sample from a target called "Confidence Hills" into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover.
The sample contained much more haematite than any rock or soil sample previously found during the two-year-old mission.
Haematite is an iron-oxide mineral that gives clues about ancient environmental conditions from when it was formed.
"We have reached the part of the crater, where we have the mineralogical information that was important in selection of Gale Crater as the landing site," said Ralph Milliken from Brown University.
"We are now on a path where the orbital data can help us predict what minerals we will find and make good choices about where to drill. Analyses like these will help us place rover-scale observations into the broader geologic history of Gale that we see from orbital data," he added.
Much of Curiosity's first year on Mars was spent investigating outcrops in a low area of Gale Crater called "Yellowknife Bay", near the spot where the rover landed.
The rover found an ancient lakebed. Rocks present there held evidence of wet environmental conditions billions of years ago that offered ingredients and an energy source favourable for microbial life.
The rover spent much of the mission's second year driving from "Yellowknife Bay" to the base of Mount Sharp.
The new sample is only partially oxidised and preservation of magnetite and olivine indicates a gradient of oxidation levels.
"That gradient could have provided a chemical energy source for microbes," Milliken concluded.