Mineralogy of Martian Soil is Similar to Soils of Volcanic Origin in Hawaii

October 31, 2012

Space

results of the first analysis of Martian soil

This graphic shows results of the first analysis of Martian soil by the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) experiment on NASA’s Curiosity rover. The image reveals the presence of crystalline feldspar, pyroxenes and olivine mixed with some amorphous (non-crystalline) material. The soil sample, taken from a wind-blown deposit within Gale Crater, where the rover landed, is similar to volcanic soils in Hawaii. Curiosity scooped the soil on Oct. 15, 2012, the 69th sol, or Martian day, of operations. It was delivered to CheMin for X-ray diffraction analysis on October 17, 2012, the 71st sol. By directing an X-ray beam at a sample and recording how X-rays are scattered by the sample at an atomic level, the instrument can definitively identify and quantify minerals on Mars for the first time. Each mineral has a unique pattern of rings, or “fingerprint,” revealing its presence. The colors in the graphic represent the intensity of the X-rays, with red being the most intense. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames

Using its Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument, NASA’s Curiosity rover has completed initial experiments showing the mineralogy of Martian soil is similar to weathered basaltic soils of volcanic origin in Hawaii.

The minerals were identified in the first sample of Martian soil ingested recently by the rover. Curiosity used its Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin) to obtain the results, which are filling gaps and adding confidence to earlier estimates of the mineralogical makeup of the dust and fine soil widespread on the Red Planet.

“We had many previous inferences and discussions about the mineralogy of Martian soil,” said David Blake of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who is the principal investigator for CheMin. “Our quantitative results provide refined and in some cases new identifications of the minerals in this first X-ray diffraction analysis on Mars.”

The identification of minerals in rocks and soil is crucial for the mission’s goal to assess past environmental conditions. Each mineral records the conditions under which it formed. The chemical composition of a rock provides only ambiguous mineralogical information, as in the textbook example of the minerals diamond and graphite, which have the same chemical composition, but strikingly different structures and properties.

CheMin uses X-ray diffraction, the standard practice for geologists on Earth using much larger laboratory instruments. This method provides more accurate identifications of minerals than any method previously used on Mars. X-ray diffraction reads minerals’ internal structure by recording how their crystals distinctively interact with X-rays. Innovations from Ames led to an X-ray diffraction instrument compact enough to fit inside the rover.

These NASA technological advances have resulted in other applications on Earth, including compact and portable X-ray diffraction equipment for oil and gas exploration, analysis of archaeological objects and screening of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, among other uses.

“Our team is elated with these first results from our instrument,” said Blake. “They heighten our anticipation for future CheMin analyses in the months and miles ahead for Curiosity.”

NASA's Curiosity rover scooped up some Martian soil

This pair of images shows a “bite mark” where NASA’s Curiosity rover scooped up some Martian soil (left), and the scoop carrying soil. The first scoop sample was taken from the “Rocknest” patch of dust and sand on Oct. 7, 2012, the 61st sol, or Martian day, of operations. A third scoop sample was collected on Oct. 15, or Sol 69, and deposited into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument on Oct. 17, or Sol 71. These images were taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera. Scientists enhanced the color in this version to show the Martian scene as it would appear under lighting conditions on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The specific sample for CheMin’s first analysis was soil Curiosity scooped up at a patch of dust and sand that the team named Rocknest. The sample was processed through a sieve to exclude particles larger than 0.006 inch (150 micrometers), roughly the width of a human hair. The sample has at least two components: dust distributed globally in dust storms and fine sand originating more locally. Unlike conglomerate rocks Curiosity investigated a few weeks ago, which are several billion years old and indicative of flowing water, the soil material CheMin has analyzed is more representative of modern processes on Mars.

“Much of Mars is covered with dust, and we had an incomplete understanding of its mineralogy,” said David Bish, CheMin co-investigator with Indiana University in Bloomington. “We now know it is mineralogically similar to basaltic material, with significant amounts of feldspar, pyroxene and olivine, which was not unexpected. Roughly half the soil is non-crystalline material, such as volcanic glass or products from weathering of the glass. ”

Bish said, “So far, the materials Curiosity has analyzed are consistent with our initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater recording a transition through time from a wet to dry environment. The ancient rocks, such as the conglomerates, suggest flowing water, while the minerals in the younger soil are consistent with limited interaction with water.”

During the two-year prime mission of the Mars Science Laboratory Project, researchers are using Curiosity’s 10 instruments to investigate whether areas in Gale Crater ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, and built Curiosity and CheMin.

Source: Guy Webster / D.C., Jet Propulsion Laboratory; NASA

Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames; NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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