More news from Mars! Or more specifically, from Yellowknife Bay, a place that shows extensive evidence of flowing water. After relocating to the region and performing a preliminary search, Curiosity has located the rock it will drill in order to gain an understanding of its composition and search for organics molecules. The rock has been dubbed “John Klein”, and this will be the first time engineers have drilled into the surface of another planet.
Already, Curiosity has determined that at one time, the Gale Crater was once the site of flowing water. But in its current location, they are able to assess the geological history and have stumbled upon a number of interesting features. In the course of descending from the plateau region where it landed into the relative depression that is Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity has observed many layers of rock that are increasingly older, effectively taking it backwards into the planet’s history.
Geologists are finding a lot of different rock types, indicating that many different geologic processes took place here over time, all of which confirm that water passed through the region at one time. For example, some of the minerals are sedimentary, which suggests that flowing water moved small grains around and deposited them. Other samples are cracked and filled with veins of material such as calcium sulfate, which were formed when water percolated through the cracks and deposited the mineral.
All these investigations suggest if you could go deep into Mars’ past and stand at the same spot as the rover, you’d probably see a river of flowing water with small underwater dunes along the riverbed. And since these rivers left traces behind, drilling into the rocks will reveal what else they carried, which could very well include the building blocks of life!
Already, Curiosity brushed some of these rocks to remove their dust covering and then examined them with its high-resolution Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera. The next step will be to drill 5 centimeter holes into some of these rocks and veins to definitively determine their composition. Geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech said that the team will search for aqueous minerals, isotope ratios that could indicate the composition of Mars’ atmosphere in the past, and possibly organic material.
The drilling will probably take place within two weeks, though NASA engineers are still unsure of the exact date. But, says Richard Cook, Curiosity’s project manager, the procedure will be “the most significant engineering thing we’ve done since landing,” and will require several trial runs, equipment warm-ups, and drilling a couple test holes to make sure everything works. The team wants to take things as slowly as possible to correct for any problems that may arise, such as potential electrical shorts and excessive shaking of the rover.
And of course, this time around they are likely to be much more tight-lipped and reserved when it comes to announcing their findings. Should they uncover evidence of life at one time in Mars’ deep past, they will certainly need to be sure. Such a finding is likely to be… “Earthshaking”! I admit, that’s getting old. I’ll stop now…