by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Curiousity found a mineral match

First holes drilled by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity at Mount Sharp (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

First holes drilled by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity at Mount Sharp (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Before NASA’s Curiosity rover ever landed on Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) identified a mineral-rich environment in the region called Gale Crater, the impact basin with Mount Sharp at its center. With evidence of the iron-oxide mineral hematite, the engineering teams could expect clues about the conditions when hematite was first formed in the ancient Mars environment.

This week, those observations from orbit from 2010 were confirmed when drilling samples matched the expected mineral profile. The analyzed powder came from a drilling mission in late September, from “Confidence Hills” within the “Pahrump Hills” outcropping. This sample contained greater quantities of hematite than any other sample over the past two years.

“This connects us with the mineral identifications from orbit, which can now help guide our investigations as we climb the slope and test hypotheses derived from the orbital mapping,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in Pasadena.

X-ray diffraction patterns from samples collected from rocks on Mars by NASA's Curiosity rover (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

X-ray diffraction patterns from samples collected from rocks on Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The conditions in rocks at Mount Sharp differ from those in rocks examined en route to the mountain, those collected earlier at Yellowknife Bay. The earlier samples contained mostly magnetite. The later samples show evidence of greater oxidization after the rock material likely interacted with water and the atmosphere. Hematite can form when magnetite interacts in oxidizing conditions. Gradient levels of oxidation indicate different environments, including possibly chemical energy sources for microbes.

Curiosity engineers and scientists plan to target a band of rock higher up on Mount Sharp which displays a strong signature of hematite in the scans made from orbit. Having made a match on the ground at this location, Curiosity confirmed on ground what scientists suspected from the sky.


Effects of the comet

One benefit to Mars being entirely populated by robots includes the fantastic observations these orbital and ground-based machines collected when Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring came within about 87,000 miles of the planet. This fly-by is estimated at one-tenth the distance of any known fly-by on Earth, approximately half the distance between Earth and the moon.

Comet meteor shower put magnesium and iron into Martian atmosphere (Image Credit: NASA/Univ. of Colorado)

Comet meteor shower put magnesium and iron into Martian atmosphere (Image Credit: NASA/Univ. of Colorado)

Five active artificial satellites currently orbit Mars: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter, the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Mars Express spacecraft, and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

MAVEN, MRO, and ESA’s Mars Express have gathered images and scientific measurements from the comet indicating increased electric charge to the ionosphere and debris that likely produced an impressive meteor shower. MAVEN sampled comet dust in Mars’ atmostphere. Analysis has detected eight different metal ions, including iron, magnesium, and sodium. Since Siding Spring originated in the Oort Cloud of our solar system, these measurements provide scientists some of the best evidence for the composition of the Oort Cloud itself.

Videos with Comet Images

Check out these two videos from JPL which include images obtained by MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE)

  1. Mars Orbiter Observes Comet Siding Spring
  2. Mars-Flyby Comet in False Color

Want More?

  • Mars Exploration Program
  • Mars MAVEN mission
  • Twitter: @MarsRovers, Spirit and Oppy
  • Twitter: @MarsCuriosity
  • Twitter: @MAVEN2Mars
  • Twitter: @NASAJPL
  • Facebook: NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover
  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Cat Ellen
Cat Ellen

Cat Ellen is a technical writer by trade, an occasional copy editor
and beta reader, and has a passion for teaching ATS bellydance and
numerous textile arts, notably drop spindle and card weaving.