Curiosity: Update 8 – Methane-less Mars

Shooting Lasers from MSL’s TLS instrument

Mars has lost at least half its atmosphere since the planet’s inception, Curiosity confirms. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Other than shielding life from harmful UV radiation, atmosphere also controls the fluctuations in climate. Because Mars’ atmosphere contains more heavier varieties of carbon dioxide than lighter ones, the ratio suggest the planet has sadly lost much of its atmosphere. Mars’ thin atmosphere has nearly untraceable amounts of methane, only a few parts of methane per billion parts of Martian atmosphere. Microbes like bacteria emit methane. In fact, 95% of methane on Earth is produced by biological processes. Though Curiosity failed to find traces of methane in Gale Crater, Mars may yet host methane elsewhere.

Curiosity used its SAM instruments (Sample Analysis at Mars) and TLS (Tunable Laser Spectrometer). In the near future, SAM will analyze its first solid sample to search for organic compounds in rocks.

In addition, air samples from Curiosity match ones from trapped air bubbles in meteorites found on Earth. Ergo, those meteorites definitely originated from Mars. 1 billion years ago, a large asteroid collided into Mars and split into fragments.

References

 “NASA Rover Finds Clues to Changes in Mars’ Atmosphere.” JPL Caltech. JPL, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/index.cfm?FuseAction=ShowNews&NewsID=1388&gt;.

Vergano, Dan. “NASA’s Curiosity rover confirms Mars lost atmosphere.” USA Today. USA Today, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/sciencefair/2012/11/02/curiosity-rover-mars-methane/1678033/&gt;.

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Curiosity: Update 7 – Fingerprinting Martian Materials

X-Ray View of Martian Soil

The latest of Curiosity’s analyses show that the Martian minerals is similar to “weathered basaltic salts of volcanic origin in Hawaii.”  Curiosity’s CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) instrument refines and identifies minerals in X-ray diffraction analysis on Mars. X-ray diffraction records hows minerals’ internal structures’ crystals react with X-rays. Identifying minerals in rocks and soil is crucial in assessing past environmental conditions. Each mineral has evidence of its unique formation. These minerals have similar chemical compositions but different structures and properties. The samples taken at “Rocknest” were consistent with scientists’ initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater. Ancient rocks suggest flowing water, while minerals in younger soil suggest limited interaction with water.

References

“NASA Rover’s First Soil Studies Help Fingerprint Martian Minerals First X-ray View of Martian Soil” JPL Caltech. JPL, 30 Oct 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012.

Curiosity: Update 6 – Jake Matijevic, the Martian Rock

Analyzing “Jake Matijevic”

Curiosity first discovered “Jake Matijevic,” the pyramid rock on Mars, on September 19, 2012, but on October 11, 2012, NASA released a report on the chemical composition of this unusual rock. The rock’s composition was more varied than expected and even resembled some rocks in Earth’s interior. The pyramid rock resembles the common igneous rock found in many volcanic areas on Earth. On Earth, these igneous rocks typically form in the mantle from the crystallization (solidification) of liquid magma at elevated pressure. The first rock analyzed by the rover’s arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and the thirtieth by the rover’s Chemistry and Camera instrument (ChemCam) on September 22, 2012, “Jake” has unique compositions at all 14 points targeted by Curiosity. Analyzing “Jake” marked the first time results of ChemCam were compared with APXS. In addition to the two instruments, Curiosity carries analytical laboratories to provide a more in-depth view of rocks’ and powders’ compositions.

Curiosity’s first scoop of sample from “Rocknest” was perfect. The first scoop is designed to clean Curiosity, essentially like a Martian car wash. Curiosity will spend three weeks at” Rocknest” and then drive 100 yards east to select a rock as its first target for its drill.

References

Greicius , Tony, ed. “Mars Rock Touched by NASA Curiosity has Surprises.” NASA. NASA, 11 Oct 2012. Web. 18 Oct 2012.

Curiosity: Update 5 – First Scoop, “Rocknest”

Rocknest on Mars

One hundred yards before its destination, Glenelg, Mars Rover Curiosity scoops samples of rock and soil above and below Mars’ surface for two weeks of instrument cleaning and calibrating. Curiosity must “rinse and spit” to rid its instruments of Earth residue. In a nest littered with rocks, appropriately named “Rocknest,” the rover will scoop four times the ordinary Mars material in preparation for samples at Glenelg. According to NASA, “The end of the rover’s 220-pound arm will shake ‘at a nice tooth-rattling vibration level’ for eight hours, like a Martian martini mixer gone mad. That heavy shaking will vibrate the fine dust grains through the rover chemical testing system to cleanse it of unwanted residual Earth grease.” Before Curiosity can scoop material, it must analyze the grain-size distribution and tread the surface with its wheel to expose new material. It will be two weeks before the rover scoops its first analytical sample, or sample number three (the first two are for cleansing) and even more time to analyze the sample composition. The CheMin instrument will identify minerals and the SAM instrument will identify chemical ingredients in sample three and four.

References

Larlham, Chuck. “NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity—Welcome To “Rocknest” Where Real Science Begins.” Technology.gather.com. Gather.com, 7 Oct 2012. Web. 8 Oct 2012.

Hubbard, Amy. “Curiosity to scoop up Martian soil: First, it must rinse and spit.” LA Times. LA Times, 5 Oct 2012. Web. 8 Oct 2012.

Curiosity: Update 4 – Pyramid Rock

Pyramid rock: “Jake Matijevic”

On September 19, 2012, NASA scientists assigned Mars rover Curiosity a monumental task — determine the properties of a football-sized pyramid-shaped rock that looks like the Great Pyramid of Giza. Strange thing is… the rock is in the middle of nowhere! Where did it originate? Could it have been built by an intelligent race that lived or still lives on Mars? Curiosity discovered this rock at the end of its 43rd Martian day. Using the 10 cm tall and 16 cm wide rock as a practice target, Curiosity will test its contact instruments: Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer for reading a target’s elemental composition and  Mars Hand Lens Imager for close-up imaging. While weird rocks shaped by wind erosion are not uncommon on Mars’ surface, this minature pyramid is probably just a rock. Spurring the imaginations of Earthlings imagining life beyond, the odd rock remains the center of speculation, especially since Curiosity’s objective is to find evidence of Mars’ capability to harbor life. Named after NASA engineer Jake Matijevic who passed away on August 20, 2012, the pyramid-shaped rock may be a impact fragment ejected into the Gale Crater. Jake Matijevic was the leading engineer in the Sojounrer, Opportunity, and Spirit missions, while surface operations systems chief engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory/ Curiosity mission.

Curiosity’s robotic arm

On September 22, 2012, Curiosity finished its inspection of the rock target. Its ChemCam lasers zapped the rock to analyze its chemical components and calibrate the instruments, marking the first use of Curiosity’s robotic arm.

References

Dicker, Ron. “Mars Rock: Curiosity Rover To Examine Pyramid-Shaped Boulder, NASA Says.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 23 Sep 2012. Web. 1 Oct 2012.

Greicius , Tony, ed. “Curiosity Finishes Close Inspection of Rock Target.” NASA. NASA, 24 Sep 2012. Web. 1 Oct 2012.

Greicius , Tony, ed. “NASA Mars Rover Targets Unusual Rock on Its Journey.” NASA. NASA, 19 Sep 2012. Web. 1 Oct 2012.

Curiosity: Update 3 – H2O Traces on Mars

Ancient Martian Stream, Bedrock

On September 27, 2012, the rover Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory) snapped and sent back images of Martian bedrock possibly once home to a fast-moving stream. Curiosity founded rounded pebbles, probably due to erosion by water. The rocks ranging in size from sand grains to golf balls could not have been carried into the Gale Crater by wind, but carried water for a 20 to 25 miles and smoothed out. At one point in the past lasting thousands to millions of years, Mars may have been overflowing with liquid water, but present-day Mars is a barren desert with nothing but remnants of rock carved by water. Curiosity made this remarkable discovery when driving to Glenelg, the point where three types of terrain meet. Finding water is only the first step to discovering a once-habitable environment for microbial life. However, the dried-up stream didn’t preserve organic carbon. Carbon is necessary for life, so Curiosity will head to the foothills of Mount Sharp to find organic materials. Instead of “following the water,” scientists will now “follow the carbon.”

References

” Curiosity finds signs of ancient stream on Mars.” FOX News. Fox News, 27 Sep 2012. Web. 27 Sep 2012.

Kaufman, Mark. “Curiosity rover’s Mars landing site was once covered with fast-moving water, NASA says.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sep 2012. Web. 27 Sep 2012.