Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Curious activity and interplanetary jet lag

Hannah Bruce Macdonald

Curiosity, NASA’s Mars rover, has become the first instrument to carry out X-ray diffraction on another planet. Curiosity has paused on its journey to ‘Rocknest’ to perform its first test on the soils, while simultaneously removing any contaminants from Earth which it might have taken with it on its journey to space.

This comes after the team’s relief of shifting to normal working days for their study of Mars, after spending the first 90 days of the mission following a Martian time frame with 24 hour 39 minute days. Now those working on the project have recovered from interplanetary jet lag, they have set Curiosity to start shifting the sand to isolate the particles smaller than 150 micrometres and analyzing it.

The results of x-ray diffraction have shown significant amounts of feldspar, olivine and pyroxene. The sands themselves have been formed from sandstorms, meteorite collisions, or by the chemical breakdown of rocks through the action of water or oxygen. This soil sample is comparable to basaltic soil found in Hawaii, a volcanic island. These deposits have come from the Gale crater, which the scientists predict was an area that has passed from a wet environment to a dry one. The minerals are consistent with this, indicating limited interaction with water.

This research is all carried out with the notion that Mars could have supported microbial life, which makes the comparison to sands found on Earth and the suggestion of water interaction such an exciting one.