NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Detects Clues Hinting at a Wetter Past 

During the same relative time period, other clues indicate more oxygen was present in the atmosphere than found currently

This scene shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana," where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. In front of the rover are two holes from the rover's sample-collection drill and several dark-toned features that have been cleared of dust (see inset images). These flat features are erosion-resistant fracture fills containing manganese oxides. The discovery of these materials suggests the Martian atmosphere might once have contained higher abundances of free oxygen than it does now. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This image shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a location called “Windjana,” where the rover found rocks containing manganese oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. In front of the rover are two holes from the rover’s sample-collection drill and several dark-toned features that have been cleared of dust (see inset images). These flat features are erosion-resistant fracture fills containing manganese oxides. The discovery of these materials suggests the Martian atmosphere might once have contained higher abundances of free oxygen than it does now.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Space news (planetary science: Martian rocks containing manganese oxide minerals; indicating a wetter surface with more atmospheric oxygen than presently found on Mars) – Mars (the Red Planet), 154 million miles (249 kilometers) from Sol, or 141 million miles (228 million kilometers) from Earth, on average –

This view from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover shows the rock target "Windjana" and its immediate surroundings after inspection of the site by the rover. The drilling of a test hole and a sample collection hole produced the mounds of drill cuttings that are markedly less red than the other visible surfaces. This is material that the drill pulled up from the interior of the rock. This view is from the 627th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (May 12, 2014). The open hole from sample collection is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. It was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014). A preparatory "mini drill" hole, to lower right from the open hole, was drilled on Sol 615 (April 29, 2014) and subsequently filled in with cuttings from the sample collection drilling. Two small patches of less-red color to the right of the drill holes are targets "Stephen" (higher) and "Neil," where multiple laser hits by Curiosity's Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument blasted some of the reddish surface dust off the surface of the rock. The vigorous activity of penetrating the rock with the rover's hammering drill also resulted in slides of loose material near the rock. For comparison to the site before the drilling, see the Sol 609 image of Windjana at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA18087. MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This view from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover shows the rock target “Windjana” and its immediate surroundings after inspection of the site by the rover. The drilling of a test hole and a sample collection hole produced the mounds of drill cuttings that are markedly less red than the other visible surfaces. This is material that the drill pulled up from the interior of the rock.
This view is from the 627th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (May 12, 2014).
The open hole from sample collection is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. It was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014). A preparatory “mini drill” hole, to lower right from the open hole, was drilled on Sol 615 (April 29, 2014) and subsequently filled in with cuttings from the sample-collection drilling.
Two small patches of less red color to the right of the drill holes are targets “Stephen” (higher) and “Neil,” where multiple laser hits by Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument blasted some of the reddish surface dust off the surface of the rock.
The vigorous activity of penetrating the rock with the rover’s hammering drill also resulted in slides of loose material near the rock. 
MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has found rocks at a place called Windjana containing manganese oxide minerals according to reports from planetary scientists studying samples from the region. On Earth rocks of this type formed during the distant past in the presence of abundant water and atmospheric oxygen. This news added to previous reports of ancient lakes and other groundwater sources during Mar’s past points to a wetter environment in the study region Gale Crater during this time. 

This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a sandstone slab on which the rover team has selected a target, "Windjana," for close-up examination and possible drilling. The target is on the approximately 2-foot-wide (60-centimeter-wide) rock seen in the right half of this view. The Navcam's left-eye camera took this image during the 609th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (April 23, 2014). The rover's name is written on the covering for a portion of the robotic arm, here seen stowed at the front of the vehicle. The sandstone target's informal name comes from Windjana Gorge in Western Australia. If this target meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission's third drilled rock and the first that is not mudstone. The rock is within a waypoint location called "the Kimberley," where sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area's "middle unit," because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover and the rover's Navcam. > Read more: NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Inspects Site Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a sandstone slab on which the rover team has selected a target, “Windjana,” for close-up examination and possible drilling. The target is on the approximately 2-foot-wide (60-centimeter-wide) rock seen in the right half of this view.
The Navcam’s left-eye camera took this image during the 609th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (April 23, 2014). The rover’s name is written on the covering for a portion of the robotic arm, here seen stowed at the front of the vehicle.
The sandstone target’s informal name comes from Windjana Gorge in Western Australia. If this target meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission’s third drilled rock and the first that is not mudstone.
The rock is within a waypoint location called “the Kimberley,” where sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area’s “middle unit,” because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover and the rover’s Navcam.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Planetary scientists used the laser-firing instrument on the Curiosity Mars rover to detect high levels of manganese-oxide in mineral veins found at Windjana. “The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

On this view of the Curiosity rover mission's waypoint called "the Kimberley," the red dot indicates the location of a sandstone target, "Windjana," that researchers selected for close-up inspection and possibly for drilling. The view is an excerpt from an April 11, 2014, observation by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. A larger scene from the same observation is at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA18081. In the image's enhanced color, Curiosity itself appears as the bright blue object at the two-o'clock position relative to the butte in the lower center of the scene. That butte is called "Mount Remarkable" and stands about 16 feet (5 meters) high. The rover subsequently drove to within its robotic arm's reach of Windjana. For scale, the distance between the parallel wheel tracks visible in the image is about 9 feet (2.7 meters). In the area of the Kimberley waypoint, sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area's "middle unit," because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations. If Windjana meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission's third drilled rock and the first that is not mudstone. This view is an enhanced-color product from HiRISE observation ESP_036128_1755, available at the HiRISE website at http://uahirise.org/releases/msl-kimberley.php. The exaggerated color, to make differences in Mars surface materials more apparent, makes Curiosity appear bluer than the rover really looks. HiRISE is one of six instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Science Laboratory projects for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the Mars Science Laboratory Project's Curiosity rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
On this view of the Curiosity rover mission’s waypoint called “the Kimberley,” the red dot indicates the location of a sandstone target, “Windjana,” that researchers selected for close-up inspection and possibly for drilling.
The view is an excerpt from an April 11, 2014, observation by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In the image’s enhanced color, Curiosity itself appears as the bright blue object at the two-o’clock position relative to the butte in the lower center of the scene. That butte is called “Mount Remarkable” and stands about 16 feet (5 meters) high. The rover subsequently drove to within its robotic arm’s reach of Windjana. For scale, the distance between the parallel wheel tracks visible in the image is about 9 feet (2.7 meters).
In the area of the Kimberley waypoint, sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area’s “middle unit,” because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations.
The exaggerated color, to make differences in Mars surface materials more apparent, makes Curiosity appear bluer than the rover really looks.
HiRISE is one of six instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Science Laboratory projects for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the Mars Science Laboratory Project’s Curiosity rover.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Planetary scientists are looking at other processes that could create the manganese-oxide they found in rocks in Mar’s Gale Crater region. Possible culprits at this point include microbes, but even optimistic planetary scientists are finding little fan fair accompanying their ideas. Lanza said, “These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions. Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on its robotic arm to illuminate and record this nighttime view of the sandstone rock target "Windjana." The rover had previously drilled a hole to collect sample material from the interior of the rock and then zapped a series of target points inside the hole with the laser of the rover's Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The precision pointing of the laser that is mounted atop the rover's remote-sensing mast is evident in the column of scars within the hole. That instrument provides information about the target's composition by analysis of the sparks of plasma generated by the energy of the laser beam striking the target. Additional ChemCam laser scars are visible at upper right, on the surface of the rock. This view combines eight separate MAHLI exposures, taken at different focus settings to show the entire scene in focus. The exposures were taken after dark on the 628th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (May 13, 2014). The rover drilled this hole on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014). MAHLI includes light-emitting diodes as well as a color camera. Using the instrument's own lighting yields an image of the hole's interior with less shadowing than would be seen in a sunlit image. The camera's inspection of the interior of the hole provides documentation about what the drill bit passed through as it penetrated the rock -- for example, to see if it cut through any mineral veins or visible layering. MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on its robotic arm to illuminate and record this nighttime view of the sandstone rock target “Windjana.” The rover had previously drilled a hole to collect sample material from the interior of the rock and then zapped a series of target points inside the hole with the laser of the rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter.
The precision pointing of the laser that is mounted atop the rover’s remote-sensing mast is evident in the column of scars within the hole. That instrument provides information about the target’s composition by analysis of the sparks of plasma generated by the energy of the laser beam striking the target. Additional ChemCam laser scars are visible at upper right, on the surface of the rock.
This view combines eight separate MAHLI exposures, taken at different focus settings to show the entire scene in focus. The exposures were taken after dark on the 628th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (May 13, 2014). The rover drilled this hole on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014).
MAHLI includes light-emitting diodes as well as a color camera. Using the instrument’s own lighting yields an image of the hole’s interior with less shadowing than would be seen in a sunlit image. The camera’s inspection of the interior of the hole provides documentation about what the drill bit passed through as it penetrated the rock — for example, to see if it cut through any mineral veins or visible layering.
MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Geologists have found high concentrations of manganese oxide minerals is an important marker of a major shift in Earth’s atmospheric composition, from relatively low oxygen levels during the distant past, to the oxygen-rich environment we live in today. Planetary scientists studying the rocks they found in Gale Crater suggest the presence of these materials indicates oxygen levels on Mars rose also, before declining to the present low levels detected. The question is how was Mar’s oxygen-rich atmosphere formed?

November 3, 2015 Lanza at the summit of Hvannadalsnukur, the highest mountain in Iceland, practicing glacier travel techniques similar to those needed for Antarctic fieldwork. Lanza at the summit of Hvannadalsnukur, the highest mountain in Iceland, practicing glacier travel techniques similar to those needed for Antarctic fieldwork. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory
November 3, 2015
Planetary scientist Lanza at the summit of Hvannadalsnukur, the highest mountain in Iceland, practicing glacier travel techniques similar to those needed for exploring the farthest reaches of the planet and possibly the solar system.
Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

“One potential way that oxygen could have gotten into the Martian atmosphere is from the breakdown of water when Mars was losing its magnetic field,” said Lanza. “It’s thought that at this time in Mars’ history, water was much more abundant. Yet without a protective magnetic field to shield the surface, ionizing radiation started splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Because of Mars’ relatively low gravity, the planet wasn’t able to hold onto the very light hydrogen atoms, but the heavier oxygen atoms remained behind. Much of this oxygen went into rocks, leading to the rusty red dust that covers the surface today. While Mars’ famous red iron oxides require only a mildly oxidizing environment to form, manganese oxides require a strongly oxidizing environment, more so than previously known for Mars.

Lanza added, “It’s hard to confirm whether this scenario for Martian atmospheric oxygen actually occurred. But it’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated. Abundant atmospheric oxygen has been treated as a so-called biosignature or a sign of extant life, but this process does not require life.

This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows two holes at top center drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana." The farther hole, with larger pile of tailings around it, is a full-depth sampling hole. It was created by the rover's hammering drill while the drill collected rock-powder sample material from the interior of the rock. The nearer hole was created by a shallower test drilling into the rock in preparation for the sample collection. Each hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The full-depth hole is about 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) deep, drilled during the 621st Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (May 5, 2014). The test hole is about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) deep, drilled on Sol 615 (April 29, 2014). This image was taken on Sol 621 (May 5). The sandstone target's informal name comes from Windjana Gorge in Western Australia. The rock is within a waypoint location called "The Kimberley," where sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area's "middle unit," because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover and the rover's Navcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows two holes at top center drilled into a sandstone target called “Windjana.” The farther hole, with larger pile of tailings around it, is a full-depth sampling hole. It was created by the rover’s hammering drill while the drill collected rock-powder sample material from the interior of the rock. The nearer hole was created by a shallower test drilling into the rock in preparation for the sample collection. Each hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The full-depth hole is about 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) deep, drilled during the 621st Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (May 5, 2014). The test hole is about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) deep, drilled on Sol 615 (April 29, 2014). This image was taken on Sol 621 (May 5).
The sandstone target’s informal name comes from Windjana Gorge in Western Australia. The rock is within a waypoint location called “The Kimberley,” where sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area’s “middle unit,” because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover and the rover’s Navcam.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Curiosity rover has been investigating Gale Crater for around four years and recent evidence supports the possibility conditions needed to form these deposits were present in other locations. The concentrations of manganese oxide discovered were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in a region of the crater called “Kimberley”. NASA’s Opportunity rover has been exploring the surface of the planet since 2004 and recently reported similar high manganese deposits in a region thousands of miles away. Supporting the idea environments required to form similar deposits could be found well beyond Gale Crater.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana." The camera is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which previously recorded portraits of Curiosity at two other important sites during the mission: "Rock Nest" (http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16468) and "John Klein" (http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16937). Winjana is within a science waypoint site called "The Kimberley," where sandstone layers with different degrees of resistance to wind erosion are exposed close together. The view does not include the rover's arm. It does include the hole in Windjana produced by the hammering drill on Curiosity's arm collecting a sample of rock powder from the interior of the rock. The hole is surrounded by grayish cuttings on top of the rock ledge to the left of the rover. The Mast Camera (Mastcam) atop the rover's remote sensing mast is pointed at the drill hole. A Mastcam image of the drill hole from that perspective is at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=0626MR0026780000401608E01_DXXX&s=626. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The rover's wheels are 20 inches (0.5 meter) in diameter. Most of the component frames of this mosaic view were taken during the 613th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (April 27, 2014). Frames showing Windjana after completion of the drilling were taken on Sol 627 (May 12, 2014). The hole was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014). MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. > NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Marks First Martian Year with Mission Successes Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called “Windjana.” The camera is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which previously recorded portraits of Curiosity at two other important sites during the mission: “Rock Nest” 
Winjana is within a science waypoint site called “The Kimberley,” where sandstone layers with different degrees of resistance to wind erosion are exposed close together.
The view does not include the rover’s arm. It does include the hole in Windjana produced by the hammering drill on Curiosity’s arm collecting a sample of rock powder from the interior of the rock. The hole is surrounded by grayish cuttings on top of the rock ledge to the left of the rover. The Mast Camera (Mastcam) atop the rover’s remote sensing mast is pointed at the drill hole. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The rover’s wheels are 20 inches (0.5 meter) in diameter.
Most of the component frames of this mosaic view were taken during the 613th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (April 27, 2014). Frames showing Windjana after completion of the drilling were taken on Sol 627 (May 12, 2014). The hole was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014).
MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
> NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Marks First Martian Year with Mission Successes
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

What’s next for Curiosity?

NASA’s Curiosity rover’s currently collecting drilled rock powder from the 14th drill site called the Murray formation on the lower part of Mount Sharp. Plans call for NASA’s mobile laboratory to head uphill towards new destinations as part of a two-year mission extension starting near the beginning of October. 

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover completed a shallow "mini drill" activity on April 29, 2014, as part of evaluating a rock target called "Windjana" for possible full-depth drilling to collect powdered sample material from the rock's interior. This image from Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument shows the hole and tailings resulting from the mini drill test. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) deep. When collecting sample material, the rover's hammering drill bores as deep as 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters). This preparatory activity enables the rover team to evaluate interaction between the drill and this particular rock and to view the potential sample-collection target's interior and tailings. Both the mini drill activity and acquisition of this image occurred during the 615th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (April 29, 2014). MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover completed a shallow “mini drill” activity on April 29, 2014, as part of evaluating a rock target called “Windjana” for possible full-depth drilling to collect powdered sample material from the rock’s interior. This image from Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument shows the hole and tailings resulting from the mini drill test. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and about 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) deep.
When collecting sample material, the rover’s hammering drill bores as deep as 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters). This preparatory activity enables the rover team to evaluate the interaction between the drill and this particular rock and to view the potential sample-collection target’s interior and tailings. Both the mini-drill activity and acquisition of this image occurred during the 615th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (April 29, 2014).
MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The rover will go forward about a-mile-and-a-half (two-and-a-half-kilometers) to a ridge capped with material rich in the iron-oxide mineral hematite first identified by observations made with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Just beyond this area, there’s also a region with clay-rich bedrock planetary scientists want to have a closer look.

The foreground of this scene from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows purple-hued rocks near the rover's late-2016 location on lower Mount Sharp. The scene's middle distance includes higher layers that are future destinations for the mission. Variations in color of the rocks hint at the diversity of their composition on lower Mount Sharp. The purple tone of the foreground rocks has been seen in other rocks where Curiosity's Chemical and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument has detected hematite. Winds and windblown sand in this part of Curiosity's traverse and in this season tend to keep rocks relatively free of dust, which otherwise can cloak rocks' color. The three frames combined into this mosaic were acquired by the Mastcam's right-eye camera on Nov. 10, 2016, during the 1,516th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing, to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. Sunlight on Mars is tinged by the dusty atmosphere and this adjustment helps geologists recognize color patterns they are familiar with on Earth. The view spans about 15 compass degrees, with the left edge toward southeast. The rover's planned direction of travel from its location when this scene was recorded is generally southeastward. The orange-looking rocks just above the purplish foreground ones are in the upper portion of the Murray formation, which is the basal section of Mount Sharp, extending up to a ridge-forming layer called the Hematite Unit. Beyond that is the Clay Unit, which is relatively flat and hard to see from this viewpoint. The next rounded hills are the Sulfate Unit, Curiosity's highest planned destination. The most distant slopes in the scene are higher levels of Mount Sharp, beyond where Curiosity will drive. Figure 1 is a version of the same scene with annotations added as reference points for distance, size and relative elevation. The annotations are triangles with text telling the distance (in kilometers) to the point in the image marked by the triangle, the point's elevation (in meters) relative to the rover's location, and the size (in meters) of an object as big as the triangle at that distance. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, and built the project's Curiosity rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The foreground of this scene from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows purple-hued rocks near the rover’s late-2016 location on lower Mount Sharp. The scene’s middle distance includes higher layers that are future destinations for the mission.
Variations in color of the rocks hint at the diversity of their composition on lower Mount Sharp. The purple tone of the foreground rocks has been seen in other rocks where Curiosity’s Chemical and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument has detected hematite. Winds and windblown sand in this part of Curiosity’s traverse and in this season tend to keep rocks relatively free of dust, which otherwise can cloak rocks’ color.
The three frames combined into this mosaic were acquired by the Mastcam’s right-eye camera on Nov. 10, 2016, during the 1,516th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing, to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. Sunlight on Mars is tinged by the dusty atmosphere and this adjustment helps geologists recognize color patterns they are familiar with on Earth.
The view spans about 15 compass degrees, with the left edge toward the southeast. The rover’s planned direction of travel from its location when this scene was recorded is generally southeastward.
The orange-looking rocks just above the purplish foreground ones are in the upper portion of the Murray formation, which is the basal section of Mount Sharp, extending up to a ridge-forming layer called the Hematite Unit. Beyond that is the Clay Unit, which is relatively flat and hard to see from this viewpoint. The next rounded hills are the Sulfate Unit, Curiosity’s highest planned destination. The most distant slopes in the scene are higher levels of Mount Sharp, beyond where Curiosity will drive.
Figure 1 is a version of the same scene with annotations added as reference points for distance, size and relative elevation. The annotations are triangles with text telling the distance (in kilometers) to the point in the image marked by the triangle, the point’s elevation (in meters) relative to the rover’s location, and the size (in meters) of an object as big as the triangle at that distance.
Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates Mastcam. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA has been exploring these key exploration sites on lower Mount Sharp as part of an effort to investigate evidence the Red planet was once a much wetter environment, which contrasts with the pictures of Mars we have received from our orbiters and rovers. A wetter environment where life could have taken root and grown.

“We continue to reach higher and younger layers on Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Even after four years of exploring near and on the mountain, it still has the potential to completely surprise us.”

Planetary scientists found the Murray formation consists primarily of mudstone, which on Earth would form from mud accumulated on the bottom on an ancient lake. This seems to indicate any lake environment that existed on the Red Planet lasted awhile, but we’ll need to investigate this possibility more. Plans are for Curiosity to investigate the upper regions of the Murray formation, ahead, for at least one year of the mission. 

“We will see whether that record of lakes continues further,” Vasavada said. “The more vertical thickness we see, the longer the lakes were present, and the longer habitable conditions existed here. Did the ancient environment change over time? Will the type of evidence we’ve found so far transition to something else?”

Vasavada said, “The Hematite and the Clay units likely indicate different environments from the conditions recorded in the older rock beneath them and different from each other. It will be interesting to see whether either or both were habitable environments.”

Read about the ferocious wind nebula astronomers have observed for the first time.

Learn how astronomers determine distances to objects on the other side of the Milky Way.

Help NASA find and classify young planetary systems to study by becoming a Disk Detective.

Find out more about NASA’s contributions to the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

Learn more about NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its mission here.

Discover more about the Red Planet.

Read more about NASA’s Curiosity rover.

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