Mars rover Curiosity has been on Mars now for over one year. In that time the rover has performed a variety of science observations, revealing to scientists even more about the surface of the red planet. Today, NASA announced that data collected by curiosity has led to a host of new findings, including six new papers published this week in Science Express.
The biggest reveal from the research is that Curiosity has helped researchers date a Martian rock. Rocks from Mars have certainly been dated in the past, but never one that was gathered and tested while on the planet itself.
The rock dated was the one in the "Cumberland" region that Curiosity explored earlier this year. The rock was the second that Curiosity had examined using its drill. Using radiometric and exposure age dating from the rover, researchers are estimating that the rock is somewhere between 3.86 billion and 4.56 billion years old.
"The age is not surprising, but what is surprising is that this method worked using measurements performed on Mars," said Kenneth Farley, author of the paper on the rock dating and a geochemist at the California Institute of Technology. "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."
In addition to the rock dating, Curiosity has taken the first radiation hazard readings on the Martian surface and detected what might be organic compounds in the Martian soil. The rover has also already completed its primary mission by determining that Mars once had conditions that could have supported some forms of life.
NASA believes that all of these discoveries will help to set the stage for a future manned mission to mars. In particular, Curiosity's radiation measurements have raised questions over how much exposure to cosmic rays astronauts sent to Mars might have to endure. NASA is currently working towards the goal of sending a manned mission to Mars by the end of the 2030s.
"Our measurements provide crucial information for human missions to Mars," said Don Hassler, the lead author of a report on Curiosity's radiation measurements and the science program director at the Southwest Research Institute. "We're continuing to monitor the radiation environment and seeing the effects of major solar storms on the surface 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 concerns for human health also affect microbial survival as well as preservation of organic chemicals."
(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)