NASA’s Continued Curiosity for Life on Mars

Posted: November 15, 2011 - 09:46 , by royal
Natural History, What's New, Mineralogy, Research | Comments () | Comment

By Brent Hyde, Minerology Technician

Did life ever exist on the red planet? This is a question NASA has been trying to answer for more than 40 years. In the next couple of years, NASA hopes to get some answers.

In late November of this year, NASA will be launching its latest and greatest rover to Mars. The mission is called the Mars Science Laboratory and the rover has been dubbed Curiosity. Weighing in at 900 kilograms and the size of a small car, this rover is by far the largest and most sophisticated rover ever to be sent to Mars. The rover’s onboard laboratory will study rocks, minerals, and try to detect the chemical building blocks of life on Mars.

Scientists watch as the rover drives the obstacle course in the NASA Lab.

Curiosity takes a test drive at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Image: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity will be the first Mars rover to use a radioactive battery to power its journey; past rovers have relied on solar panels. With this new source of power and a suite of new scientific instruments, Curiosity will be able to travel to regions and conduct experiments beyond the capabilities of its predecessors.

The destination on Mars is an impact crater named Gale. In the centre of this crater is a mountain of material. Scientists have discovered that this mountain contains layers of material slowly deposited during the history of Mars. The stories recorded in these layers could go back billions of years. It will be up to Curiosity, and scientists here on Earth, to pull these stories from the rocks. Will these stories tell us if, when, and for how long Mars might have been habitable? Will the stories speak of life itself? Only time, and a little luck, will tell.

The layers found in Gale contain minerals known as clays and sulfates. These minerals are formed when water interacts with rock. Since water is necessary for life on Earth, NASA has concentrated its search for life on Mars to areas where water has been. Mineralogists world-wide, including here at the Royal Ontario Museum, have been studying these minerals to better understand what they can tell us about the environment in which they formed. Brendt Hyde, a mineralogy technician at the ROM has devoted years of study to sulfate minerals and their relationship to Mars. He has studied sulfates from sulfate-salt lakes in British Columbia, sulfates found in meteorites and has even grown his own sulfates in laboratories. These minerals are sensitive indicators of their formation environment; however, they are notorious for changing as they are being analyzed. Gaining information from these minerals is challenging, but necessary if we want to unlock the secrets of Mars’ past.

ROM Mineralogy houses mineral specimens from all over the world, a number of martian meteorites and has recently updated its analytical equipment. The new state of the art laboratory coupled with the availability of samples gives the ROM unique abilities to study minerals analogous to those Curiosity will locate on Mars.

Mark your calendars, Curiosity will touch down on Mars in August 2012. ROM scientists will be eager to see what it discovers and hope to help unravel the history of Mars.