That is probably the most remarkable thing I've ever seen as a scientist, given the difficulty of the analyses," Farley says.

This also helps researchers looking for evidence of past life on Mars.

Crater counting relies on the simple fact that planetary surfaces are repeatedly bombarded with objects that scar their surface with impact craters; a surface with many impact craters is presumed to be older than one with fewer craters.

Once the rock samples were drilled, Curiosity's robotic arm delivered the rock powder to the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument, where it was used for a variety of chemical analyses, including the geochronology—or rock dating—techniques.

One technique, potassium-argon dating, determines the age of a rock sample by measuring how much argon gas it contains.

"MSL instruments weren't designed for this purpose, and we weren't sure if the experiment was going to work, but the fact that our number is consistent with previous estimates suggests that the technique works, and it works quite well."The researchers do, however, acknowledge that there is some uncertainty in their measurement.

One reason is that mudstone is a sedimentary rock—formed in layers over a span of millions of years from material that eroded off of the crater walls—and thus the age of the sample drilled by Curiosity really represents the combined age of those bits and pieces.

The work, led by geochemist Ken Farley of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), could not only help in understanding the geologic history of Mars but also aid in the search for evidence of ancient life on the planet.

Many of the experiments carried out by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission's Curiosity rover were painstakingly planned by NASA scientists more than a decade ago. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry and one of the 29 selected participating scientists, submitted a proposal that outlined a set of techniques similar to those already used for dating rocks on Earth, to determine the age of rocks on Mars.

The smooth floor of Yellowknife Bay is made up of a fine-grained sedimentary rock, or mudstone, that researchers think was deposited on the bed of an ancient Martian lake.

In March, Curiosity drilled holes into the mudstone and collected powdered rock samples from two locations about three meters apart.

Furthermore, the "young" surface exposure offers insight into the erosion history of the site.