Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jackpot: NASA's Curiosity rover finds mineral veins, evidence of water

The Curiosity rover has hit the jackpot, NASA said on Saturday. According to the researchers, Curiosity has uncovered widespread evidence of "multiple episodes of liquid water" flowing over the surface of Mars billions of years ago when the planet was once a warmer, wetter place.

What Curiosity seems to have found, in Yellowknife Bay in Gale Crater, is sedimentary rock that is “criss-crossed by mineral-filled veins,” which resemble rocks formed on Earth which are formed when water flows through an area and deposits minerals.

Within days, the scientists said, they will issue an order to Curiosity to drill into those veins. The rover's analytical chemistry labs will then examine a powdered sample to determine its composition and determine if organic molecules are present.

Richard Cook, the project manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., referring to the jackpot of possible evidence, said:
The scientists have been let into the candy store.
He added,
We identified a potential drill target and are preparing to do drill activities in the next two weeks. We are ready to go.

Drilling [into a rock] is the most significant engineering activity since landing. It is the most difficult aspect of the surface mission, interacting with an unknown surface terrain, and has never been done on Mars. We will go slowly. It will take some time.
White colored veins -- which scientists believer are likely comprised of calcium sulfate, which exists in several hydrated (water bearing) forms, were discovered over the past few weeks, using high-resolution mast-mounted imaging cameras.

The discovery was made in a shallow basin dubbed Yellowknife Bay. It is approximately half a mile from the rover's landing site inside Gale Crater.

John Grotzinger, the mission’s chief scientist of the California Institute of Technology said:
(It) turns out to be kind of the "jackpot" unit. It is literally shot through with these fractures and vein fills.

What these vein fills tell us is water moved and percolated through these rocks. So this is the first time in this mission that we have seen something that is not just an aqueous environment, but one that also results in precipitation of minerals, which is very attractive to us.

This has been really exciting and we can’t wait to start drilling.
Curiosity landed on Mars in August of 2012. Its primary mission is to investigate the possibility that Mars once offered -- or even offers -- an environment favorable for microbial life. It is now nearly a quarter of the way through its two year prime mission.

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