Friday, November 2, 2012

Gale Crater, Mars: Like a Hawaiian Beach; Only Drier, Colder, - - -

"NASA Rover's First Soil Studies Help Fingerprint Martian Minerals"
Missions News, NASA (October 30, 2012)

"NASA's Mars rover Curiosity 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.'..."

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, used w/o permission)
"This pair of images from the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the upper portion of a wind-blown deposit dubbed 'Rocknest.' ... The colors in the image at left are unmodified, showing the scene as it would appear on Mars, which has a dusty red-colored atmosphere. The image at right has been white-balanced to show what the same area would look like under the lighting conditions on Earth.

"The rounded rock located at the upper center portion of the images is about 8 inches (0.2 meters) across...."

What Curiosity scooped up may be like Hawaiian soil, but Gale Crater is no Waikiki Beach. The air is mostly carbon dioxide, very thin, and cold. Now.

This particular scoop was taken near "Rocknest," the patch of ground shown in those photos. The soil seems to have been formed 'recently,' when Mars was the cold, barren, place it is today.

Another soil sample was older:

"...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...."

Movie Monsters, No

Flowing water on Mars, several billion years back, doesn't mean that we'll find a Martian princess, a "space monster," or any of the other nifty B-movie critters from Hollywood.

On the other hand, there might be 'Martians' living today:
  • If Mars' water stayed liquid long enough
  • If enough organic compounds were there
  • If our current assumptions about how life starts are right
Or we may find solid evidence of critters that used to live there: microbes, most likely.

That's a lot of "ifs."

Then there's the intriguing possibility that we discovered living Martians a few decades ago: and wrote them off as 'peculiar chemistry.' (March 5, 2009)

In the Lemming's considered opinion, life on Mars probably wouldn't be quite like life on Earth: and that's another topic.

Martian Microbes, Maybe

"...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...."

Just finding a spot on Mars where conditions had been "favorable for microbial life" would be exciting. Finding microbes, living or long dead? That would take much of the speculation out of exobiology. It would also upset quite a few folks, for various reasons. And that's yet another topic.

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