December 1, 2012
Barbara A. Schmitz
NASA’s Curiosity rover is literally digging up dirt and finding information that is helping to unlock mysteries of the Red Planet.
Since arriving on Mars in August 2012, the car-sized rover has taken significant steps toward understanding how Mars may have lost much of its original atmosphere. (The present atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth’s.) Learning what happened to the Martian atmosphere will help scientists determine whether the planet ever was habitable.
A set of instruments aboard the rover has ingested and analyzed samples of the atmosphere collected near the “Rocknest” site in Gale Crater. Findings suggest that loss of a fraction of the atmosphere, resulting from a physical process favoring retention of heavier isotopes of certain elements, has been a significant factor in the planet’s evolution.
Initial results show an increase of 5 percent in heavier isotopes of carbon in the atmospheric carbon dioxide compared to estimates of the isotopic ratios present when Mars formed. These enriched ratios of heavier isotopes to lighter ones suggest the top of the atmosphere may have been lost to interplanetary space.
Curiosity tests also have shown that Mars has little to no methane gas, which is important since methane is a simple precursor chemical for life. On Earth, it can be produced by either biological or non-biological processes.
In late October, Curiosity’s initial experiments also showed the mineralogy of Martian soil is similar to weathered basaltic soils of volcanic origin in Hawaii.
“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,” said David Bish, CheMin co-investigator with Indiana University. “The ancient rocks, such as the conglomerates, suggest flowing water, while the minerals in the younger soil are consistent with limited interaction with water.”
Curiosity’s prime mission will last two years. You can follow the mission on Facebook.
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