The Red Planet May Have Once Been Blue: Curiosity Finds More Evidence Of Water
March 18, 2013

The Red Planet May Have Once Been Blue: Curiosity Finds More Evidence Of Water

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

NASA announced last week about how its Curiosity rover has found evidence for ancient environmental conditions favorable for life, and today a team has expanded on those findings.

Scientists said during a news briefing at the Lunar Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas about how Curiosity found evidence of water-bearing minerals in rocks near where it found clay minerals inside a drilled rock.

Using infrared-imaging capabilities of a camera on the rover, the researchers found evidence for more hydration minerals near the clay-bearing rock than at locations Curiosity visited earlier.

"Some iron-bearing rocks and minerals can be detected and mapped using the Mastcam's near-infrared filters," said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Tempe. Curiosity's Mastcam is a camera capable of detecting minerals and hydration.

Scientists used Mastcam to check rocks in the "Yellowknife Bay" area where Curiosity's drill collected the first powder from the interior of a rock on Mars last month. Some of the rocks located in this area on the Red Planet are crisscrossed with bright veins.

"With Mastcam, we see elevated hydration signals in the narrow veins that cut many of the rocks in this area," said Melissa Rice of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena. "These bright veins contain hydrated minerals that are different from the clay minerals in the surrounding rock matrix."

Curiosity's Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument helps detect hydrogen beneath the rover. The hydrogen detected at the rover's dry study area on Mars is mainly in water molecules bound into minerals.

"We definitely see signal variation along the traverse from the landing point to Yellowknife Bay," said DAN Deputy Principal Investigator Maxim Litvak of the Space Research Institute, Moscow. "More water is detected at Yellowknife Bay than earlier on the route. Even within Yellowknife Bay, we see significant variation."

The latest findings indicate that the wet environmental process that produced clay a Yellowknife Bay did it without much change in the overall mix of chemical elements present.

"The elemental composition of rocks in Yellowknife Bay wasn't changed much by mineral alteration," said Curiosity science team member Mariek Schmidt of Brock University, Saint Catharines, Ontario, Canada. "By removing the dust, we've got a better reading that pushes the classification toward basaltic composition."

The scientists determined that the rocks at Yellowknife Bay likely formed when original basaltic rocks were broken into fragments, transported, re-deposited and mineralogically altered by exposure to water.

Last week, NASA announced the results from the powder Curiosity drilled out of the sedimentary rock on Mars. The analysis of the powder showed it contained the presence of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.

“A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA´s Mars Exploration Program at the agency´s headquarters in Washington. “From what we know now, the answer is yes.”

NASA researchers also pointed out that the drilling of the rock on the Red Planet revealed the reddish surface on Mars also has a layer of gray.

“We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new ℠gray Mars´ where conditions once were favorable for life,” John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif. “Curiosity is on a mission of discovery and exploration, and as a team we feel there are many more exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months and years to come.”