NASA’s Curiosity Rover Reports Back on “Most Chemically Diverse Part” of Gale Crater on Mars

An image of a rock called “Ben Hee,” taken with the ChemCam instrument. It shows bedrock filled with dark nodules, which usually form in soft sediments found in active lakes on Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL/IRAP-CNES

ChemCam played a key role in analyzing new data.

The first study of the Glen Torridon region in Mars’ Gale crater reveals that groundwater altered the bedrock in the area during the planet’s early history, which has crucial implications for understanding past habitability and the likelihood of finding past life on Mars. The findings, which were published in a special issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets, reveal some of the early discoveries from the Glen Torridon region.

“The primary reason that the rover was sent to Mars was to investigate this region so we can understand the transition from an early, warm and wet Mars to a cold and dry one,” said Patrick Gasda, of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Space and Remote Sensing group and lead author on the study. “This region probably represents the last stages of a wet Mars, and we want to understand the lake sediments in order to give us a baseline for what happened right before Mars’ climate changed. It turns out this was a very active time in Mars’ history.”

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover took this selfie at a location nicknamed “Mary Anning” after a 19th-century English paleontologist. Curiosity snagged three samples of drilled rock at this site on its way out of the Glen Torridon region, which scientists believe preserves an ancient habitable environment. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The NASA Curiosity rover explored the ancient lakebed rocks within the Glen Torridon region from January 2019 to January 2021. During that time, the rover observed signs that the bedrock was changed by groundwater, especially in the higher elevations along the rover’s path. The rover also discovered a surprisingly high number of nodules, veins, and other features related to water alteration of the bedrock.

The research team used data from the rover’s ChemCam instrument, which was developed at Los Alamos and CNES (the French space agency), to record chemistry and images from the four cameras on the rover in order to look for physical and chemical changes to the rocks.

“First we saw a large number of dark-toned, rounded ‘nodules’ throughout the rock, and these features usually form in the soft sediments that are found in active lakes on Earth, so that’s likely how they formed on Mars,” Gasda said.

Then the rover observed large dark and white veins with strange chemistry, including high iron and manganese dark veins, and fluorine-rich lighter veins.

“These veins are very perplexing. We think, in the early stages of the crater, when the initial impact heated the rocks surrounding the crater, groundwater flowed through those rocks. We think this hot water likely extracted elements such as fluorine from these rocks,” Gasda said. “High concentrations of fluorine are usually only found in hydrothermal systems on Earth. We did not expect to find veins with chemistry like this in Glen Torridon.”

These hydrothermal systems could help researchers better understand habitability and prebiotic chemistry on Mars.

“If hydrothermal systems like these were active during the time of the lake, as we hypothesized in the paper, it would be very exciting,” Gasda said.

These systems would bring redox elements (including iron, nickel, sulfur, and manganese) to the surface of Mars, and microbes use these elements to derive energy. On Earth, deep sea hydrothermal vents can produce hydrogen and methane gas, and some more complicated organic molecules; these are places that could have synthesized the basic building blocks of life on ancient Earth.

“The possibility of this existing on Mars is very cool,” Gasda said.

These veins may be connected to other veins and nodules with enigmatic chemistry that have been found throughout the crater earlier in the mission. It could be that the crater was altered on a larger scale with groundwater that was related to the initial impact of the crater.

The rock beneath the crater likely remained warmer for longer than researchers initially thought, which would account for the higher concentration of elements such as fluorine in the groundwater. This groundwater could have circulated widely in the crater, forming other veins of varying chemistry for a long time after the crater initially formed.

Reference: Overview of the Morphology and Chemistry of Diagenetic Features in the Clay-Rich Glen Torridon Unit of Gale Crater, Mars” by Patrick J. Gasda, J. Comellas, A. Essunfeld, D. Das, A. B. Bryk, E. Dehouck, S. P. Schwenzer, L. Crossey, K. Herkenhoff, J. R. Johnson, H. Newsom, N. L. Lanza, W. Rapin, W. Goetz, P.-Y. Meslin, J. C. Bridges, R. Anderson, G. David, S. M. R. Turner, M. T. Thorpe, L. Kah, J. Frydenvang, R. Kronyak, G. Caravaca, A. Ollila, S. Le Mouélic, M. Nellessen, M. Hoffman, D. Fey, A. Cousin, R. C. Wiens, S. M. Clegg, S. Maurice, O. Gasnault, D. Delapp and A. Reyes-Newell, 21 April 2022, Journal of Geophysical Research Planets.
DOI: 10.1029/2021JE007097

Funding: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

CuriosityDOEGeophysicsLos Alamos National LaboratoryMarsPopular
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  • Sekar

    Interesting.

    Fluorine (Atomic Number 9 – Gas) binds much more strongly than Chlorine (Atomic No. 17- Gas) and other elements in Column 17 of the periodic Table, like Bromine (Atomic Number 35- Liquid), Iodine (Element No. 53 – Solid? ) , and Astatine (Element No. 85 – Solid) or Tenessine (Element No. 117 – ???) .

    Not sure what is meant by strange chemistry or perplexing chemistry. Chemistry is thanks to electrons. Nuclear Chemistry is due to Photons. Now do we know where the antimatter imbalance went!

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone!

  • Ken Towe

    What is missing (and they should be there as water dries up) are the evaporite minerals…salts needed for life. Finding them is more important that worrying about “strange chemistry”. Perseverance rover should be looking for them instead of sending “stunning” landscape postcards home.

  • Babu G. Ranganathan

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    POSSIBLY MILLIONS OF TONS OF VOLCANIC EARTH SOIL REACHED MARS (Newsweek)

    A Newsweek article of September 21, 1998, p.12 mentions the high possibility of Earth life on Mars because of millions of tons of Earth soil ejected into space from ancient volcanic explosions. “We think there’s about 7 million tons of earth soil sitting on Mars”, says USC scientist Kenneth Nealson. “You have to consider the possibility that if we find life on Mars, it could have come from the Earth” [Weingarten, T., Newsweek, September 21, 1998, p.12]. This may also explain why life forms may exist on Venus, again because they originated from Earth.

    In the Earth’s past there was powerful volcanic activity which could have easily spewed dirt and rocks containing microbes and life into outer space which not only could have eventually reached Mars but also ended up traveling in orbit through space that we now know as meteors, comets, and asteroids. This would mean life forms found in meteorites originated from Earth in the first place.

    Secular scientists have a different explanation from creationist scientists on the volcanic eruptions of the Earth’s past. Creation scientists believe, as Genesis teaches, that as the fountains of the deep were opened to release water for the world-wide flood the force of the eruptions could have indeed spewed great amounts of earth soil into space.

    Life could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    Having the right conditions and raw material for life do not mean that life can originate or arise by chance. Stanley Miller, in his famous experiment in 1953, showed that individual amino acids (the building blocks of life) could come into existence by chance. But, it’s not enough just to have amino acids. The various amino acids that make-up life must link together in a precise sequence, just like the letters in a sentence, to form functioning protein molecules. If they’re not in the right sequence the protein molecules won’t work. It has never been shown that various amino acids can bind together into a sequence by chance to form protein molecules. Even the simplest cell is made up of many millions of various protein molecules.

    The probability of just an average size protein molecule arising by chance is 10 to the 65th power. Mathematicians have said any event in the universe with odds of 10 to 50th power or greater is impossible! The late great British scientist Sir Frederick Hoyle calculated that the odds of even the simplest cell coming into existence by chance is 10 to the 40,000th power! How large is this? Consider that the total number of atoms in our universe is 10 to the 82nd power.
    Also, what many don’t realize is that Miller had a laboratory apparatus that shielded and protected the individual amino acids the moment they were formed, otherwise the amino acids would have quickly disintegrated and been destroyed in the mix of random energy and forces involved in Miller’s experiment.

    Miller’s experiment produced equally both left-handed and right-handed amino acids, but all living things strictly require only left-handed amino acids. If a right-handed amino acid gets into the chain the protein won’t work.

    There is no innate chemical tendency for the various amino acids to bond with one another in a sequence. Any one amino acid can just as easily bond with any other. The only reason at all for why the various amino acids bond with one another in a precise sequence in the cells of our bodies is because they’re directed to do so by an already existing sequence of molecules found in our genetic code.

    Of course, once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    * I have had the privilege of being recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who In The East” for my writings on religion and science, and I have given successful lectures (with question and answer time afterwards) defending creation from science before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities.