Geological curiosity on Mars

The central link is sand which is similar to that found on the islands of Hawaii. In another more tenuous link, the rover is located in a spot on Mars called Glenelg ? in Australia, a sandy beachside suburb.

NASA?s Curiosity rover, which carries 17 cameras and 10 scientific instruments, has found soil on Mars to be similar to Hawaii’s after sifting and scanning its first sample on the Red Planet.

These sandy samples should give clues to Mars’ recent geological history. As had been theorised, much of the sample is made up of sand grains with crystals similar to weathered “basaltic” materials of volcanic origin, like those seen on the islands of Hawaii.

The sample seems to contain dust carried from afar by Mars’ global-scale storms, as well as coarser sand of more local provenance.

Curiosity is on the floor of Gale Crater, a huge depression on Mars’ equator and has travelled more than 480m to the east toward a spot called Glenelg, a place that satellite images indicate is an interesting junction between three different geological terrains.

Curiosity accomplished another first: the first-ever use of X-ray diffraction on another planet. X-ray diffraction is a well-established approach on Earth, in which a focused beam of X-rays is either bounced off a sample, giving strong hints both of what kinds of atoms are in the sample and any crystalline structures that they may be locked in.

The sample contained “significant amounts” of the minerals feldspar, olivine and pyroxene.

“So far, the materials Curiosity has analysed are consistent with our initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater, recording a transition through time from a wet to dry environment,” said David Bish, co-investigator on the CheMin experiment.

In the weeks since its arrival on Mars, the rover has already put its ChemCam and APXS instruments to work examining larger rocks, including a never-before-seen specimen reported earlier in October.

“The ancient rocks, such as the conglomerates, suggest flowing water, while the minerals in the younger soil are consistent with limited interaction with water,” Dr Bish explained.

The analysis is all part of the rover’s mission to discover if Mars was ever capable of sustaining life, even life as small as microbes.

The soil analysis comes on the heels of NASA’s announcement in late September that the rover had found evidence of a “vigorous” thousand-year water flow on the surface of Mars.

With the discovery of water, one of the key elements needed to support life, the rover is now looking for other necessary elements, such as carbon in soil or rock fragments.

Sources: BBC, MX, ComputerWorld

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