By Brendt Hyde, Mineralogy Technician
On November 26, 2011 at 10:02 am EST, NASA successfully launched its next rover, Curiosity, towards Mars. As discussed on the ROM Blog in November, Curiositywill help to determine if Mars has ever been habitable. The launch is only the first stage in a long trek to Mars – the Rover will not touch the martian surface until August 2012.
Going to Mars is difficult to say the least. About half of all missions fail to reach the red planet in one piece. NASA seems to have luck (and a lot of talent) on its side with its past rover missions. Its first rover Sojourner and subsequent Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) were tremendously successful. In fact the Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004, is still examining rocks today! This rover turned a 90-day mission into years of intensive study and travel on the martian surface. Curiosity is set to study Mars for about two years and is expected to travel 5 to 20 kilometers across the surface. However, past rover experience suggests that the mission may go much further.
Curiosity is being sent to an impact crater named Gale. NASA chose this site because it shows signs that water once existed in the region. Going to this site will allow scientists to determine the history of water in Gale and determine if life could have once lived in the region. The signs of water include minerals known as clays and sulfates.
This month Brendt Hyde, a mineralogy technician at the ROM, released a paper in American Mineralogist which discussed analyzing sulfate minerals and their relationship to Mars. These minerals form in the presence of water and can tell scientists a great deal about the water from which they formed. For instance, these minerals can help scientists determine the acidity of the water. So far, most of the sulfate minerals found by martian rovers suggest acidic waters. On Earth, only specific types of organisms can live in acidic environments. Determining the acidity of past martian waters would constrain the types of life that could have lived on Mars.
Just this month the Opportunity rover discovered material that NASA scientists think is the sulfate mineral gypsum. If this is proven, it is a great discovery. On Earth, gypsum forms in the presence of water. The water producing this mineral does not have to be very acidic. This means that the environment being studied by Opportunity could have been hospital to a larger variety of organisms.
The mineralogy laboratory at the ROM continues to analyze minerals analogous to those on Mars and has a number of martian meteorites currently under examination. The labs new X-ray diffractometers use technology equivalent to an instrument being carried by Curiosity. The lab also contains a micro-Raman spectrometer that is very useful for examining sulfate minerals. The history of Mars and life on Mars is written in its rocks and minerals. Curiosity and hopefully the ROM will help read this history.
Be sure to check for a blog in August 2012 when Curiosity is set to touch down on the martian surface.