NASA today announced the results of Mars rover Curiosity’s initial analysis of the soil it has been scooping now for weeks. The results show that the Martian soil around the “Rocknest” area resembles weathered basaltic soils of volcanic origin in Hawaii. These findings come from a small sample that was placed into Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin).
“We had many previous inferences and discussions about the mineralogy of Martian soil,” said David Blake, principal investigator for CheMin at the NASA Ames Research Center. “Our quantitative results provide refined and in some cases new identifications of the minerals in this first X-ray diffraction analysis on Mars.”
An image of the X-ray diffraction created from the CheMin data can be seen above. This method is the most accurate identification of minerals on Mars to date. The identification of minerals is “crucial” to Curiosity’s goal of assessing past environmental conditions on the red planet, and specifically whether the rover’s landing site once had environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.
“Our team is elated with these first results from our instrument,” said Blake. “They heighten our anticipation for future CheMin analyses in the months and miles ahead for Curiosity.”
This first sample was sieved for particles larger than the width of a human hair and has two components: the dust distributed all over Mars by dust storms and sand of local origin. NASA stated that the sample represents more modern processes on Mars, where the rocks the rover investigated weeks ago are billions of years old.
“Much of Mars is covered with dust, and we had an incomplete understanding of its mineralogy,” said David Bish, CheMin co-investigator at Indiana University. “We now know it is mineralogically similar to basaltic material, with significant amounts of feldspar, pyroxene and olivine, which was not unexpected. Roughly half the soil is non-crystalline material, such as volcanic glass or products from weathering of the glass.
“So far, the materials Curiosity has analyzed are consistent with our initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater recording a transition through time from a wet to dry environment. The ancient rocks, such as the conglomerates, suggest flowing water, while the minerals in the younger soil are consistent with limited interaction with water.”
(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames)