NASA Mars rover spies rare red planet rocks

NASA unearths Mars rover Spirit legacy discovery of carbonates

NASA/JPL/Cornell University
NASA's now hibernating Mars rover Spirit spotted rocks scientists say could offer key clues to whether or not life ever did or still does exist on the red planet. 

The weird thing for NASA is that the outcrop was examined by Spirit in 2005, but the data pointing to the discovery languished since then because one of the instruments that detected the carbonate minerals was partly blinded by dust, the space agency stated. 

The hottest images of cool outer space 

"Mini-TES [Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer] got dusted months before Spirit reached Comanche, and we didn't have a good way to correct for the dust effects at the time," says Steve Ruff, research scientist at ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility.  What finally did the trick was developing a calibration to remove the spectral effects of the dust on the instrument. "We knew there was something weird about the outcrop's spectrum as seen by Mini-TES, but couldn't say what caused it." 

What the Mini-TES instrument -- developed by Arizona State University - found was an outcrop of rock rich in what are known as carbonate minerals.  Such minerals are crucial to understanding the early climate history of Mars and the related question of whether the planet might once have held life, NASA stated. 

"Small amounts of carbonate minerals have been detected on Mars before," says Ruff.  The difference this time, he says, "is that we're seeing a couple of large outcrops of rock poking through the soil.  The rocks are about 25% carbonate by weight, by far the highest abundance we've seen on Mars." 

The outcrops are very rich in olivine, a volcanic mineral, but they appear to have been soaked in water, Ruff stated.   It's as if the granular material settled over a preexisting landscape, then the entire stack was flooded with carbonate-rich water, probably from a hydrothermal source. 

Water-altered rocks have been found on Mars before but scientists think that water was highly acidic, not conducive to life in general.  Acidic water quickly destroys carbonate minerals, as for example vinegar dissolves hard water deposits. Thus finding outcrops of carbonate rock shows that the hydrothermal water at Comanche was liquid, chemically neutral, and abundant, NASA stated. 

"They're definitely a puzzle to understand," says Ruff.  While there's no evidence for life, Ruff says, the conditions would have been more favorable for it. 

Ruff and lead author Richard Morris of NASA's Johnson Space Center published the Mars Spirit findings in the June 3 issue of Science

Today with the Mars Winter solstice officially upon it, NASA's Mars Rover Spirit has disconnected itself with the outside world and is no longer communicating and the space agency says it's not sure when the rover will wake up.  No communication has been received from the rover since March 22. 

As expected, it is likely that Spirit has experienced a low-power fault will use the available solar array energy to recharge her batteries, NASA said. When the batteries gain enough charge, Spirit will wake up and communicate over X-band. When that does happen, Spirit will also trip an up-loss timer fault. This fault response will let the rover communicate over Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) as well, NASA said. 

NASA said Spirit will spend the coming winter month's tilted 9 degrees toward the south, an unfavorable attitude for the solar panels to catch rays from the sun in the northern sky. Spirit's parking positions for its previous three Martian winters tilted northward. Engineers anticipate that, due to the unfavorable tilt for this fourth winter, Spirit could be out of communication with Earth for several months. 

In January, NASA's other Mars traveler, Opportunity uncovered "one of the coolest things Opportunity has found in a very long time:" a dark, basketball-sized rock known as "Marquette Island." 

According to NASA the Marquette Island rock is a coarse-grained rock that indicates it cooled slowly from molten rock, allowing crystals time to grow. Such composition suggests it originated deep in the crust, not at the surface where it would cool quicker and have finer-grained texture, NASA stated.

The rock's interior contains more magnesium than in typical Martian basalt rocks Spirit has studied, according to NASA. Researchers are determining whether it might represent the precursor rock altered long ago by sulfuric acid to become the sulfate-rich sandstone bedrock that blankets the region of Mars that Opportunity is exploring, NASA stated.

Opportunity's rock abrasion tool - which was built by Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms -- was used to grind away some of the rock's surface and expose the interior. This was the 38th rock Opportunity has ground into and one of the hardest, NASA stated. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

Layer 8 Extra

Check out these other hot stories:

"Mars" mission to develop electronic co-pilots for future astronauts

NASA tweaks comet chasers

Could a roly-poly, wind-powered rover soon zip across Mars?

Satellite gap fuels climate, weather monitoring worry

FTC shoves identity theft rules deadline to year-end

FAA awards largest contracts ever -- $4.4B -- for future air traffic network

NASA satellites watch comet death dive into the Sun

NASA Mars Lander Phoenix killed by ice

NASA preps advanced technology for the future, now

Air Force sets date to fly Mach-6 scramjet

FTC greenlights Google-AdMob deal

FTC takes out notorious porn- and botnet-spewing ISP

US looking to quash malicious insider threats

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.