NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover has completed a Martian year –687 Earth days– this week. The vehicle travels through an arid and reddish landscape that was home to glaciers in the past. Ancient Mars held large quantities of water, yet its global hydro-geological cycles were very cold, so much so that they induced the presence of a giant ocean, partially ice-covered and rimmed by glaciers on the lower plains of the northern hemisphere.
Now, an international team of researchers has confirmed this global picture locally, on the Martian site where Curiosity is roving: Gale crater. “This crater was covered by glaciers approximately 3,500 million years ago, which were particularly extensive on its central mound, Aeolis Mons” points to SINC the lead investigator of the study Alberto Fairén, from the Centro de Astrobiología (INTA-CSIC) in Spain and Cornell University in the USA.
“However, at that time there were also rivers and lakes with very cold liquid water in the lower-lying areas within the crater,” adds the researcher, who highlights the fact that ancient Mars was capable of “maintaining large quantities of liquid water (an essential element for life) at the same time that giant ice sheets covered extensive regions of its surface”.
In the first 300 days of the Mars Science Laboratory surface mission, the Curiosity rover cruised around the planet’s Gale Crater, collecting soil samples and investigating rock structures while the onboard Radiation Assessment Detector made detailed measurements of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars.
“Our measurements provide crucial information for human missions to Mars,” said Dr. Don Hassler, a Southwest Research Institute program director and RAD principal investigator. Hassler is the lead author of “Mars’ Surface Radiation Environment Measured with the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity Rover,” scheduled for publication in the journal Science online on December 9, 2013. “We’re continuing to monitor the radiation environment, and seeing the effects of major solar storms on the surface and at different times in the solar cycle will give additional important data. Our measurements also tie into Curiosity’s investigations about habitability. The radiation sources that are of concern for human health also affect microbial survival as well as the preservation of organic chemicals.”
NASA’s Curiosity rover is providing vital insight about Mars’ past and current environments that will aid plans for future robotic and human missions.
n a little more than a year on the Red Planet, the mobile Mars Science Laboratory has determined the age of a Martian rock, found evidence the planet could have sustained microbial life, taken the first readings of radiation on the surface, and shown how natural erosion could reveal the building blocks of life. Curiosity team members presented these results and more from Curiosity in six papers published online today by Science Express and in talks at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
The second rock Curiosity drilled for a sample on Mars, which scientists nicknamed “Cumberland,” is the first ever to be dated from an analysis of its mineral ingredients while it sits on another planet. A report by Kenneth Farley of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and co-authors, estimates the age of Cumberland at 3.86 billion to 4.56 billion years old. This is in the range of earlier estimates for rocks in Gale Crater, where Curiosity is working.
“The age is not surprising, but what is surprising is that this method worked using measurements performed on Mars,” said Farley. “When you’re confirming a new methodology, you don’t want the first result to be something unexpected. Our understanding of the antiquity of the Martian surface seems to be right.”
The first detailed examination of clay mineralogy in its original setting on Mars is offering new insights on the planet’s past habitability, research led by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist David T. Vaniman has found.
The sedimentary rock samples tested were collected by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity at Yellowknife Bay in Gale Crater on Mars. The rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction and Fluorescence (CheMin XRD/XRF) instrument analyzed the samples.
“The in situ X-ray diffraction results reveal the presence of smectite, a type of clay mineral typical of soils and sediments that have not been deeply buried, heated, or otherwise altered,” Vaniman said. “The X-Ray diffraction data are also important for what they do not detect – clay minerals such as chlorite or illite that would have formed in strongly alkaline or hydrothermal fluids.”
The ChemCam laser instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover fired its 100,000th shot recently, chronicling its adventures on Mars with a coffee-table-book’s worth of spectral data that might rival snapshots gathered during a long and satisfying family vacation here on Earth. ChemCam zaps rocks with a high-powered laser to determine their composition and carries a camera that can survey the Martian landscape.
“ChemCam has greatly exceeded our expectations,” said Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist and Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team. “The information we’ve gleaned from the instrument will continue to enhance our understanding of the Red Planet, and will nicely complement information from the other nine instruments aboard Curiosity as we continue our odyssey to Mount Sharp.”
Earth’s most eminent emissary to Mars has just proven that those rare Martian visitors that sometimes drop in on Earth — a.k.a. Martian meteorites — really are from the Red Planet. A key new measurement of Mars’ atmosphere by NASA’s Curiosity rover provides the most definitive evidence yet of the origins of Mars meteorites while at the same time providing a way to rule out Martian origins of other meteorites.
The new measurement is a high-precision count of two forms of argon gas—Argon-36 and Argon-38–accomplished by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on Curiosity. These lighter and heavier forms, or isotopes, of argon exist naturally throughout the solar system. But on Mars the ratio of light to heavy argon is skewed because a lot of that planet’s original atmosphere was lost to space, with the lighter form of argon being taken away more readily because it rises to the top of the atmosphere more easily and requires less energy to escape. That’s left the Martian atmosphere relatively enriched in the heavier Argon-38.
An instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover has sent back to scientists on Earth an ultra high-resolution image of a penny the rover carried to Mars.
The coin was photographed by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard Curiosity in northern Gale crater on Mars. The penny, a 1909 VDB penny minted in Philadelphia during the first year that Lincoln cents became available, is part of the MAHLI calibration target and came from Earth. The images were acquired on Oct. 2, on sol 411 – the 411th Martian day – of the mission.
“I’m so proud of how beautifully this camera has performed on Mars,” said R. Aileen Yingst, Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist and deputy Principal Investigator for MAHLI. “I can’t wait to apply this newly available capability to real geologic targets on our way to Mt. Sharp.”