Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 21:20 EDT
Salty Martian Rock
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Salty Martian Rock

January 4, 2005
These plots, or spectra, show that a rock dubbed "McKittrick" near the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's landing site at Meridiani Planum, Mars, has higher concentrations of sulfur and bromine than a nearby patch of soil nicknamed "Tarmac." These data were taken by Opportunity's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, which produces a spectrum, or fingerprint, of chemicals in martian rocks and soil. The instrument contains a radioisotope, curium-244, that bombards a designated area with alpha particles and X-rays, causing a cascade of reflective fluorescent X-rays. The energies of these fluorescent X-rays are unique to each atom in the periodic table, allowing scientists to determine a target's chemical composition.

Both "Tarmac" and "McKittrick" are located within the small crater where Opportunity landed. The full spectra are expressed as X-ray intensity (logarithmic scale) versus energy. When comparing two spectra, the relative intensities at a given energy are proportional to the elemental concentrations, however these proportionality factors can be complex. To be precise, scientists extensively calibrate the instrument using well-analyzed geochemical standards.

Both the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and the rock abrasion tool are located on the rover's instrument deployment device, or arm.