October 13th, 2012 by James Ayre
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has found a strange rock, considerably different than the rocks that have been previously inspected during Martian missions. The new rock much more closely resembles some strange rocks from the Earth’s mantle..
The Curiosity team used two instruments from the rover’s onboard science lab to analyze the chemical makeup of the rock, which is shaped like a football and has been named ‘Jake Matijevic’ the researchers. “The results support some surprising recent measurements and provide an example of why identifying rocks’ composition is such a major emphasis of the mission. Rock compositions tell stories about unseen environments and planetary processes.”
“This rock is a close match in chemical composition to an unusual but well-known type of igneous rock found in many volcanic provinces on Earth,” said Edward Stolper of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who is a Curiosity co-investigator. “With only one Martian rock of this type, it is difficult to know whether the same processes were involved, but it is a reasonable place to start thinking about its origin.”
“On Earth, rocks with composition like the Jake rock typically come from processes in the planet’s mantle beneath the crust, from crystallization of relatively water-rich magma at elevated pressure.”
“Jake was the first rock analyzed by the rover’s arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument and about the thirtieth rock examined by the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. Two penny-size spots on Jake were analyzed Sept. 22 by the rover’s improved and faster version of earlier APXS devices on all previous Mars rovers, which have examined hundreds of rocks. That information has provided scientists a library of comparisons for what Curiosity sees.”
“Jake is kind of an odd Martian rock,” said APXS Principal Investigator Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “It’s high in elements consistent with the mineral feldspar, and low in magnesium and iron.”
“ChemCam found unique compositions at each of 14 target points on the rock, hitting different mineral grains within it.”
“ChemCam had been seeing compositions suggestive of feldspar since August, and we’re getting closer to confirming that now with APXS data, although there are additional tests to be done,” said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens (WEENS) of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
“Examination of Jake included the first comparison on Mars between APXS results and results from checking the same rock with ChemCam, which shoots laser pulses from the top of the rover’s mast.”
“The wealth of information from the two instruments checking chemical elements in the same rock is just a preview. Curiosity also carries analytical laboratories inside the rover to provide other composition information about powder samples from rocks and soil. The mission is progressing toward getting the first soil sample into those analytical instruments during a ‘sol,’ or Martian day.”
“Yestersol, we used Curiosity’s first perfectly scooped sample for cleaning the interior surfaces of our 150-micron sample-processing chambers. It’s our version of a Martian carwash,” said Chris Roumeliotis (room-eel-ee-OH-tiss), lead turret rover planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“Before proceeding, the team carefully studied the material for scooping at a sandy patch called ‘Rocknest,’ where Curiosity is spending about three weeks.”
“That first sample was perfect, just the right particle-size distribution,” said JPL’s Luther Beegle, Curiosity sampling-system scientist. “We had a lot of steps to be sure it was safe to go through with the scooping and cleaning.”
After finishing up the work that they’re doing at Rocknest, the mission control team will drive Curiosity around 100 yards east, and then select a rock there to use its drill on for the first time.
Curiosity is at the beginning of its two year mission, to determine whether or not the area being studied was ever environmentally favorable for microbial life that we are familiar with.
Some more background on the mission:
“Curiosity is about twice as long and five times as heavy as the Spirit and Opportunity Mars exploration rover payloads of earlier U.S. Mars missions, and carries over ten times the mass of scientific instruments. MSL successfully carried out a more accurate landing than previous spacecraft to Mars, aiming for a small target landing ellipse of only 7 by 20 km (4.3 by 12 mi), in the Aeolis Palus region of Gale Crater.”
“In the event, MSL achieved a landing only 2.4 kilometres (1.5 mi) from the center of the target. This location is near the mountain Aeolis Mons (a.k.a. “Mount Sharp”). The rover mission is set to explore for at least 687 Earth days (1 Martian year) over a range of 5 by 20 km (3.1 by 12 mi).”
“The Mars Science Laboratory mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort for the robotic exploration of Mars that is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of California Institute of Technology. The total cost of the MSL project is about US$2.5 billion. Germany contributed 2.5 million euros ($3.1 million USD).”
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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