NASA's Curiosity Rover Finds Diverse Minerals In Martian Rocks

First Posted: Jun 12, 2017 06:39 AM EDT

A diverse variety of minerals has been found in the initial rock samples collected by the Curiosity rover in Mount Sharp’s lowermost regions, according to NASA scientists. The researchers have suggested that the diversity shows that the Red Planet’s water environment conditions changed over time.

“We went to Gale Crater to investigate these lower layers of Mount Sharp that have these minerals that precipitated from water and suggest different environments,” study author Elizabeth Rampe said, according to a Deccan Chronicle report. “These layers were deposited about 3.5 billion years ago, coinciding with a time on Earth when life was beginning to take hold. We think early Mars may have been similar to early Earth, and so these environments might have been habitable.”

According to Astrobiology Magazine, analyzing such rock layers can throw more light on the planet’s past habitability. Moreover, determining the minerals found in the sedimentary rock layers can help scientists know about the environment in which they evolved.

Incidentally, at the base layers of the rock in the Pahrump Hills region, Curiosity found the presence of minerals from a primitive magma source that is rich in magnesium and iron -- similar to the basalts found in Hawaii. The upper layers of the rock show more silica-rich minerals.

Minerals similar to quartz were found in the samples from the Telegraph Peak region on Mars, whereas in the sample from the Buckskin area tridymite was found. According to the research team, on Earth tridymite is found in rocks that were created from the partial melting of the Earth’s crust. Therefore, they found it strange to have detected this mineral on Mars because the planet never had plate tectonics.

Clay minerals and jarosite were collected from the Mojave 2 and Confidence Hills site. According to the scientists, these minerals could be good indicators of past environments that were conducive to life. The samples also included different iron-oxide minerals such as magnetite and hematite. The type of iron oxide mineral present could also help the researchers know about the oxidation potential of the ancient waters on the planet.

The authors have suggested two hypotheses explain the mineralogical diversity. The first one is that “The lake waters themselves at the base were oxidizing, so either there was more oxygen in the atmosphere or other factors encouraged oxidation.” The other hypothesis suggests that later-stage fluids arose. After the deposition of rock sediments, some oxidizing, acidic groundwater moved into the region, resulting in precipitation of the hematite and jarosite.

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