Curious Results from Mars

Categories: Feature Stories Mars

Rover traverse and location of ChemCam soil targets for the first 100 sols Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona, Figure from Meslin et al. (2013)

NASA’s Curiosity rover touched down on Mars with dramatic style in August, 2012. Now that the rover has spent more than a year exploring the martian surface, scientific data from the mission is starting to make its way into journals and popular news here on Earth.

In fact, there is so much data coming back from the rover that it is sometimes hard to understand what all of the different findings mean – both in terms of the fine details of Curiosity’s landing site and their greater application to the planet as a whole.

In September, five articles were published as a special collection, “Curiosity at Gale Crater,” in the journal Science. The articles present results from the first four months of Curiosity’s studies in Gale Crater, during which time the rover covered 500 meters driving across the surface. Narrowing the focus even further, the majority of results come from two specific sites from Curiosity’s journey. The first is a rock dubbed Jake Matijevic (or Jake_M). The second is a patch of sand known as Rocknest, which sits on a downhill slope below a group of dark rocks. The papers also include measurements taken from martian soil along the length of the 500 meter traverse.

Astrobiology Magazine recently spoke with some of the researchers behind the Science articles in order to better understand how these findings relate to the study of life’s potential on ancient Mars.

Pierre-Yves Meslin of the University Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, and member of Curiosity’s Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) team. Credit: Pierr-Yves Meslin

Pierre-Yves Meslin, ChemCam

Pierre-Yves Meslin is a member of the team behind the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam), a package that consists of two remote sensing instruments. Curiosity uses ChemCam to study the elemental composition of targets. In simple terms, it tells us what the rocks and soil on Mars are made of. This has a practical application in helping mission planners decide which targets Curiosity should stop at and spend time analyzing with its other instruments.

Data from ChemCam is also directly useful for astrobiologists. Rocks and soil are formed and altered by physical and chemical processes at the surface. Studying the exact composition of Mars rocks can help astrobiologists determine if water played a role in shaping the structure of the martian surface at Curiosity’s landing site, Gale Crater. This information helps scientists reconstruct what the ancient environment of Mars was like, and whether or not it could have been habitable for life as we know it.

“[ChemCam] is not the first instrument to measure chemical composition at the surface,” Meslin noted. “On past missions scientists could use an instrument called APXS (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer), a version of which is also onboard Curiosity. What is new about ChemCam is that it is much more simple to operate because we don’t have to deploy the robotic arm. It’s not easy to deploy the arm. It takes time, so it slows down the rover.” ChemCam uses a laser to collect its data remotely, which is more simple than other instruments on Curiosity that need to scratch, dig and drill to collect information. Curiosity can basically just drive along, stop and zap things in its path in order to determine whether or not targets are of particular interest.

“One good thing about ChemCam is its operability. We can shoot many targets every day on Mars,” Meslin continued. “The second new thing about ChemCam is the scale of the analysis. This is the first time that we have an insight into the chemical composition at the sub millimeter scale. With ChemCam we measure at a very small scale, so we can identify the different grains or minerals. This fine-scale analysis allows us to find and decipher some heterogeneous compositions, and it is important to know the relationship between grain sizes and composition.”

A patch of windblown sand and dust known as “Rocknest.” The site sits downhill from a cluster of dark rocks. Rocknest was selected as the location for first use of the scoop on the arm of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. This view is a mosaic of images taken by the telephoto right-eye camera of the Mast Camera (Mastcam). The Rocknest patch is about 8 feet by 16 feet (1.5 meters by 5 meters). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The ChemCam team is an international effort with responsibilities mixed between the United States and France. Meslin is a scientist based at the University Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, and he also has an operational role as part of the ChemCam uplink team that selects the ChemCam targets.

A View from ChemCam

So what did Curiosity find with ChemCam in the first four months on Mars?

“In this first series of papers that was published in Science, we have made a recount of the chemical diversity seen in the soil,” explains Meslin. “What we’ve found is that we have coarse grains – millimeter scale grains – that have a composition very specific to Gale Crater.”

Meslin believes that these coarse grains are likely to originate from rocks, known as fluvial conglomerates, spotted around the Curiosity landing site, that appear to have been shaped by flowing water. These conglomerates are individual chunks of rock that are cemented together by a matrix of smaller grains (think bricks and mortar on a small scale). The ‘fluvial’ part of the name ‘fluvial conglomerates’ means that the clasts appear to have been moved and deposited in rivers and streams. Their outside edges are rounded, which is a telltale sign that they could have been smoothed and shaped by running water.

Curiosity spotted these rounded rocks early in its mission, and many scientists have cited them as evidence of an ancient streambed on the red planet. As the rocks were worn down, some of the matrix material and clasts broke away and mixed with the soil, explaining why its composition matches the coarse grains identified by ChemCam in the martian soil.

“So we find some material that is really characteristic of Gale and its rim,” explains Meslin. “On the other hand we find that the dust –the very fine-grain material and the sand particles – have a composition which is different from the rocks in Gale. This fine grained material has probably been transported by winds from another place.”

This image shows a vertical transect across a trench dug into the Rocknest sand shadow, covered with ~1-mm grains. Fifteen ChemCam laser points were acquired from the bottom to the top of the image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/IAS

Meslin points out an interesting fact: the fine-grained material analyzed by ChemCam and also by the APXS has a composition that is very similar to the composition of materials analyzed by previous APXS instruments on missions like Viking, Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers. This means that the sand and dust in Gale Crater is a type of material that could cover the entire surface of Mars.

The second important finding is that the fine-grained material is hydrated. Over the last decade, satellites in orbit around Mars have been measuring hydrogen on the planet. These studies have also shown that the surface of Mars is hydrated globally, with 2% to 10% of the weight of materials being water-equivalent hydrogen. With Curiosity, the surface measurements are confirming the remote observations.

“For the last decade there was a kind of mystery,” says Meslin. “We didn’t know the nature of this hydrogen. We didn’t know if it was subsurface ice, if it was clays, hydrated sulfates mixed in the soil or other things… so it was a mystery.”

Bring in the Instruments

In light of ChemCam’s findings about the composition of the rocks and soil at Gale Crater, Curiosity made a pit-stop at small patch of fine-grained material called Rocknest. Rocknest is basically pile of wind-blown sand with a few large, black rocks nested in the dune.

Curiosity camped out at Rocknest for a few weeks, taking the time to extend its robotic arm and collect samples. These samples were then analyzed with the instruments CheMin (Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction) and SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars).

CheMin did not find any crystalline hydrated minerals, meaning that the water in the samples was not contained in clays or sulfates. Instead, the water is trapped in materials that are more amorphous, or do not have a crystalline structure. SAM showed that the water made up about 2% of the weight of samples – providing ground confirmation of the previous observations made by Mars orbiters.

Curiosity’s Next Steps

In its first four months, Curiosity gathered a wealth of data about past and present environments on Mars. The rover is currently cruising along toward its primary destination – Mount Sharp. But that doesn’t meant the rover isn’t still doing science. 

“Our goal is to reach Mt Sharp as soon as possible. So now we drive fast,” says Meslin. “With ChemCam when we drive we shoot. We don’t shoot while driving, but we shoot almost every time the rover has stopped or before it starts driving again. So now, we make opportunistic science.” 

The ease of targeting Mars’ rocks and soil with ChemCam gives scientists the opportunity to collect data without hindering the rover’s progress across the surface. 

“When we drive we say, ‘Okay let’s shoot at this rock to see.’ You can have some survey of the rock and composition to see if the geology is changing or the composition is changing along the rover’s path,” Meslin explains. 

If Curiosity spots something spectacular or peculiar, then the mission team can make a decision about whether or not to stop for a while to study it. By doing this, Curiosity won’t miss anything important in its race to Mount Sharp. 

“Usually there is a few hours drive almost every day,” Meslin continues. “If we get data early enough to pick targets and shoot at them before the next drive, then we operate ChemCam.” 

Curiosity typically uses ChemCam before driving rather than after. This is because the images of Curiosity’s location haven’t yet reached Earth when it pauses for breath – and the scientists need the images to pick targets.  

“If we don’t have images, we make what we call ‘untargeted science’ with ChemCam,” says Meslin. “We have a mode which is blind targeting. So we shoot on the right of the rover always at the same location, so its kind of random targets.” 

Collecting so much data keeps ChemCam active, and it’s also a tiring business for the science team on Earth. 

“Basically we operate everyday. Some other teams make measurements every few weeks, but our team it’s every day,” Meslin laughs. “But we’re getting used to it.”

SAM also found that the water in samples had the same hydrogen isotopic signature as water vapor in the atmosphere. This provides some clue as to where the water in soil comes from.

“It’s probably not a very old alteration process that involves liquid water,” explains Meslin. “It’s probably a kind of processes that took a long time but that involved exchanges with the atmosphere, including possibly rock-ice interactions.”

Curiosity’s science team wanted to know if atmospheric exchange was something that controlled water content in the soil on a daily basis (think of the dew that forms on the surface of Earth in the morning as air temperatures change). They fired ChemCam’s laser at targets both during the day and at night, searching for any sign that atmospheric water was being deposited on the surface.

“During the night we did not see much significant variation of the water content,” reported Meslin. “This water has an isotopic signature that is similar to the atmosphere, but on a daily basis does not exchange much with the atmosphere.”

The results show that the signature of global hydration on Mars – the water contained in the martian soil all over the planet – is not left over from ancient Mars when the planet was warm and liquid water flowed at the surface. Instead, it comes from the atmosphere, or it shares with the atmospheric water vapor a common and contemporary source reservoir. But because there isn’t significant daily exchange of water between the atmosphere and soil, the process that led to hydration must have happened very slowly over Mars’ more recent history.

“That’s the next step now,” says Meslin. “To try to better understand – to better identify this amorphous phase that contains the hydrogen, and then see what kind of process led to its presence and how much time it took to make this process effective.”

This signature of water in Mars soils may not tell us about the ancient past of Mars, and the nature of liquid water at the planet’s surface, but other sites do. Further down the road on Mars, Curiosity explored a site called Yellowknife bay.

“This is a very different kind of environment for habitability,” said Meslin.

A second set of papers were published on Curiosity’s results at Yellowknife Bay in Science on Dec 9, 2013.

A Rocky Close-Up with APXS

Unlike ChemCam, Curiosity’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument is located on the end of the robotic arm, and it requires a more extended stop at scientific targets. The opportunity came when scientists spotted an unusual pyramid-shaped rock sitting on its own in images from Curiosity’s camera. The rock, dubbed Jake_M, looked like it was a solid chunk of heavy stone, and was composed of a single material. The mission team decided it was worth investigating, and extended the robotic arm to take a closer look.

The drive by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity during the mission’s 43rd Martian day, or sol, (Sept. 19, 2012) ended with this rock about 8 feet (2.5 meters) in front of the rover. The rock is about 10 inches (25 centimeters) tall and 16 inches (40 centimeters) wide. The rover team has assessed it as a suitable target for the first use of Curiosity’s contact instruments on a rock. The rock has been named "Jake Matijevic." This commemorates Jacob Matijevic (1947-2012), who was the surface operations systems chief engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory Project and the project’s Curiosity rover. He was also a leading engineer for all of the previous NASA Mars rovers: Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“It was the very first rock analyzed by the APXS instrument, so the team wanted to find a rock that looked homogeneous and would therefore be relatively easy to interpret and to compare with analyses made by ChemCam,” says Megan Newcombe, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). Newcombe works with data from APXS and is a contributing author on the paper in Science concerning work at Jake_M.

When the first APXS measurements came back, scientists realized how unique Jake_M actually was. They immediately noted similarities between Jake_M’s elemental composition and that of a volcanic rock on Earth known as mugearite. It was the first example of this type of rock discovered on Mars.

According to Newcombe, Jake_M most closely resembles lavas found on the Spanish island of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. This comparison helped scientists come up with some initial ideas about the conditions in which Jake_M might have formed, and the possibility that water played a role.

“Water is commonly lost by degassing during volcanic eruptions, so it can be hard to quantify how much water was present during the formation of a volcanic rock, even in terrestrial studies,” says Newcombe. “However, the concentration of water in magma affects the order and amount of crystallization of different minerals from the magma, and this in turn affects the evolution of the magma composition.”

Determining the water concentration in magma based on crystallization requires many samples from the same volcano. Jake_M is only a single rock. But in terms of the Tenerife lavas, the team found that crystallization likely occurred at 4 kilobar (kbar) of pressure with magma that was starting with 1 % water by weight.

“This is only one of many possible ways of producing a composition like Jake_M,” Newcombe notes. “Unfortunately, it is not possible to definitively answer this question with a single rock composition.”

As Newcombe explains, the only way to determine water’s role in the formation of Jake_M is to find many more closely related rocks. “If we could build up a picture of how the composition of the magma feeding this volcanic system evolved over time, then we could constrain the water concentration required to produce Jake_M without having to rely on terrestrial analogues like Tenerife.”

This image shows where NASA’s Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as "Jake Matijevic." The red dots are where the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument zapped it with its laser on Sept. 21, 2012, and Sept. 24, 2012, which were the 45th and 48th sol, or Martian day of operations. The circular black and white images were taken by ChemCam to look for the pits produced by the laser. The purple circles indicate where the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer trained its view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“I personally think it would be interesting to analyze some more coarsely crystalline rocks, since these could represent magmas that crystallized and evolved even more than Jake_M,” continues Newcombe. “However, every analysis made by Curiosity tells us something new and interesting, so it’s easy to feel like a kid in a candy store sometimes!”

Comparative Planetology: The Importance of Mars’ Past

Scientists are not sure when life originated on Earth, but it was a very long time ago… somewhere in the region of 3 to 4 billion years ago. Unfortunately, processes like weather, earthquakes and plate tectonics on Earth have erased nearly all trace of what the planet was like back then. It’s not easy for Earth scientists to just go outside and pick up 4 billion year old rocks to look for clues about life’s origin.

“Basically, we have lost our memories on Earth,” says Pierre-Yves Meslin. “It is difficult to access the conditions that were prevailing when life occurred on Earth. But we have another example in the Solar System. Mars.”

Today Mars and Earth are very different planets, but these differences were not as pronounced in the early Solar System when the planets first formed. We now know that Mars once had liquid water at its surface, and it’s possible that life gained a foothold on the red planet billions of years ago – around the same time that cells first appeared on Earth.

As the two planets aged and evolved, they became dramatically different worlds, and this could actually be a benefit for today’s astrobiologists. Mars has no plate tectonics, meaning that the surface of the planet does not shift and change like the Earth’s. The processes that have erased evidence of Earth’s ancient history did not play out on Mars in the same way. This means that ancient evidence of Mars’ environment still exists at the surface – just waiting for a robotic explorer to come along and pick it up.

“Our ‘memory’ may be on Mars,” comments Meslin. “We have very old terrains on Mars because there is no plate tectonics. We can analyze these terrains and see for ourselves, not only activity of water, but ‘were conditions agreeable for life to evolve’ at that time.”

By providing a view into the early days of a rocky planet’s evolution, Mars could shed light on the history of life on Earth through the science of comparative planetology. This makes Mars doubly interesting for astrobiologists who are not only interested in life’s potential on other planets, but also understanding of life’s origin and evolution here on Earth.