Big news from and about Mars this week! Yes, the Red Planet is showing no signs of slowing down when it comes to making the headlines. But in the past week, the biggest stories have been roughly 100 million kilometers apart. That’s the current distance between the Earth and Mars, give or take a few meters.
The first bit of news came three days ago, when NASA scientists went batty over the discovery of a shiny object sitting in Curiosity’s path, which it quickly began to examine. The second came from Morocco, where a meteorite that landed in the desert 14 months ago was revealed to have come from the Red Planet itself, prompting a team of scientists from the University of Alberta to bring it back for research.
Though seemingly unrelated, both stories had one thing in common. By examining objects on the martian surface, and those which break off from time to time and fall to Earth, scientists may be able to reconstruct what conditions on the surface of the planet were once like.
Unfortunately, the first bit of news turned out to be a bit of a hoax. After examining the shiny object, the Curiosity team determined that it had come from Curiosity itself. At least, that was there initial conclusion when they realized that the object was most likely plastic, which is not something you find sitting on the surface of a dead planet. An image of the object taken by the rover’s micro-imager ChemCam shows it looking very different from the Martian surface around it (click to get a better view).
As for the meteorite, research there may prove to be more lucrative. According to Chris Herd, a geologist with the University of Alberta, the meteorite holds traces of Mars’ atmosphere from when it split off, roughly 600 million years ago. Apparently, the meteorite started out as a typical volcanic rock on the surface of Mars until it was launched off the planet by the impact of an asteroid.
As Herd puts it, when the meteorite struck the martian surface, “a shock wave shot through the rock. Cracks and fissures within the rock were sealed instantly by the heat, trapping components of Mars’ atmosphere inside, and forming black, glassy spots.” These glassy spots are the real point of interest because they reveal “evidence of weathering at the Martian surface.”
This is further evidence that Mars boasted water on its surface, and as recently as within the last few hundred million years. It does not definitively prove whether or not it also boasted life, but at least it helps to confirm what Curiosity has been observing in recent weeks. It’s also exciting news because it means that Mars could one day be made to accommodate water again. This will come in mighty handy should humans ever decide to settle there!
Stay tuned for more Red Planet news!