Curiosity Rover’s First X-Ray Analysis of Martian Soil

Curiosity_cheminanalysisA bit of retro news from the Curiosity front here. Roughly one month ago, before the big announcement about “earthshaking news” was made, there was some other news regarding Curiosity’s ongoing soil analyses. And given all the attention that was dedicated to the possibility of organic molecules, this is one news story that might have been overlooked.

Put simply, Curiosity performed tests that were previously impossible on Mars, using an x-ray scanner that was roughly the size of shoebox in order to conduct detailed analyses of Martian soil. The purpose, of course, was to determine what kinds of minerals it contains and how its soils first came into being.

The device in question, called CheMin, takes a sample of sand – just a thimbleful – and shakes it 2,000 times a second, all the while bombarding it with x-rays. The rays then penetrate the grains, and the way in which they diffract can tell scientists about their constituent atoms. The results are then scanned to see just what kind of mineral composition it has (take a look up top to see the results rendered in stunning technicolor!)

Up until now, this technique has been impossible simply because the equipment needed to carry out such operations were far too large and clunky to fit on a rover. But thanks to NASA engineers, the device in question was shrunk down exponentially in size and even boasts improved electronics, ensuring it is both portable and energy-efficient.

As a result, the Curiosity rover has made some very interesting discoveries. For starters, Curiosity has determined that the soils in the area are extremely similar to those found around the Mauna Kea shield volcano in Hawaii. In fact, it’s identified crystalline feldspar, pyroxenes, and olivine – all of which are common to the soil here on Earth.

Yes, not exactly earthshaking news is it? But it’s interesting nonetheless, and let’s us know once again that Mars and Earth have plenty in common.

Source: Wired.com