October 31, 2012

Nasa's Curiosity Mars rover finds soil similar to volcanic sands of Hawaii

Curiosity's x-ray imager advances first mineral inventory of another planet in detection of Mars' basalt-type soil.
A Nasa image of Mars taken by Curiosity's camera during August this year, showing the base of Mount Sharp. Photograph: Nasa JPL Caltech MSSS/EPA

In the first inventory of minerals on another planet, Nasa's Mars rover has found soil that bears a striking resemblance to the weathered, volcanic sand of Hawaii, say scientists.

The rover, named Curiosity, uses an x-ray imager to reveal the atomic structures of crystals in the Martian soil. It was the first time the technology, known as x-ray diffraction, was used to analyse soil not on Earth.

"This was a 22-year journey and a magical moment for me," said David Blake, Nasa's lead scientist for the rover's mineralogical instrument.

The Martian sand grains were found to have crystals similar to those of the basaltic soils found in volcanic regions on Earth, such as Hawaii.

Scientists plan to use the information about the Mars minerals to ascertain if the planet most resembling Earth in the solar system could have supported and preserved microbial life.

"The mineralogy of Mars' soil has been a source of conjecture until now," said David Vaniman, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, in Tucson, Arizona. "This interest isn't just academic. Soils on planets' surfaces are a reflection of surface exposure processes and history, with information on present and past climates."
Specifically, scientists want to understand the conditions that allowed the formation of particular minerals.

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