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Exploring the geology of Mars

Last month I described how robotics is being used in mining, and related this to the FIRST world robotics championship, a competition for secondary school students that simulated a cargo transport station on Mars.

Actually, having robots on Mars is not limited to the imaginations of secondary school students. There have been five successful robots on Mars. Four have been rovers: Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity. Their missions have been to explore the Martian surface and atmosphere by “roving” around. While the first three rovers are now non-operational, Curiosity is still working; it has actively explored Mars for more than seven years.

The robots were sent to Mars to help meet the science goals of the Mars Exploration Program. One of those goals is to characterise the geology of Mars.

The rovers had a variety of tools to accomplish their missions, with each rover having more and better tools than its predecessors. By the time Curiosity arrived, the tools had become quite sophisticated.

{{image2-a:r-w:300}}I always carry my trusty hammer when I do fieldwork. The twin rovers carried a RAT – a rock abrasion tool – that could scrape away the weathered surface and expose fresh, unspoiled rock just like my hammer.

I also bring a hand lens into the field. Some rovers were equipped with a MI – a microscopic imager – just like my hand lens.

None of Curiosity’s predecessors could get deep into Martian rocks. My favourite tool is Curiosity’s sample collecting system consisting of a percussion drill, a brush, and mechanisms for scooping, sieving, and portioning samples of powdered rock and soil. The samples can be analysed with three instruments — a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer.

For sheer coolness, it’s tough to beat the ChemCam. This instrument fires a laser at Martian rocks from up to nine metres (30 feet) away and analyses the composition of the vaporised bits.

The rovers have other tools but possessing those mentioned above would make any field geologist as happy as a dog with two tails!

The fifth robot – InSight – is the new “guy” on the planet. Unlike the rovers, it just sits there. But it uses a super-sensitive seismometer, a heat probe, and other equipment to study the deep interior of Mars.

Thus far, the four rover robots on Mars have collectively made some remarkable discoveries:

  • More water in Mars’s past. Mars contains gravel, streambed deposits, sandstone rocks, and rocks with altered coatings, all of which appear to have formed in the presence of water. Earlier this year Curiosity found the highest amounts of clay in any sample so far, providing additional evidence there was once water in the region.
  • A suitable home for life. Mars contains the key ingredients necessary for the formation of life, as we know it, eg carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulphur. Furthermore, evidence found through the analysis of clays and rocks suggest that Mars may have been habitable for millions of years.
  • Mars experiences quakes. Seismic activity (aka “marsquakes”) occur on Mars. Studying those “marsquakes” may help scientists learn more about the interior of Mars.

Maybe someday one of the FIRST competitors will operate a robot to mine the gravel Curiosity has found on Mars!

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