NASA rover discovers gemstone on Mars

NASA rover discovers gemstone on Mars

NASA rover discovers gemstone on Mars

A research team using new methods to analyze data from NASA’s Curiosity, a rover operating on Mars since 2012, was able to independently verify that fracture halos contained opal, on Earth a gemstone formed by weathering of silicon dioxide by water.

The study reveals that the extensive subterranean fracture networks would have provided potentially more habitable conditions than those on the surface.

In 2012, NASA sent the Curiosity rover to Mars to explore Gale Crater, a large impact basin with a massive, layered mountain in the middle. As Curiosity traversed the surface of Mars, the researchers found light-toned rock surrounding fractures that criss-cross parts of the Martian landscape, sometimes extending far into the horizon of the rover images. Recent work shows that these widespread halo arrays were one of the last, if not the last, water-rich environments in the modern era of Gale Crater. This water-rich environment below ground would also have provided more habitable conditions while surface conditions were likely much harsher.

In a new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, led by former Arizona State University NewSpace postdoctoral fellow Travis Gabriel, now a physics researcher for the U.S. government, archival data from several instruments was reviewed and showed considerable anomalies near clear rocks more early in the crossing. By chance, the Curiosity rover passed through one of these fracture halos many years ago, long before Gabriel and ASU graduate student and co-author Sean Czarnecki joined the team at the rover.

Looking at the old images, they saw a huge expanse of fracture halos stretching out into the distance. By applying new methods of analyzing instrument data, the research team discovered something puzzling. These halos not only resembled halos found much later in the mission, in completely different rock units, but were similar in composition: lots of silica and water.

“Our new analysis of the archival data showed a striking similarity between all the fracture halos that we observed much later in the mission,” Gabriel said. “To see that these fracture networks were so widespread and probably filled with opal was amazing.”

By observing drill cores taken from the Buckskin and Greenhorn drill sites many years into the mission, scientists confirmed that these light-toned rocks were very unique from anything the team had seen before. .

In addition to sifting through archival data, Gabriel and his team went looking for opportunities to re-study these light-toned rocks. Upon arriving at the Lubango drill site, a light-toned fracture halo, Gabriel conducted a dedicated measurement campaign using the rover’s instruments, confirming the opal-rich composition.

The discovery of opal is notable because it can form in scenarios where silica is in solution with water, a process similar to dissolving sugar or salt in water. If there is too much salt or conditions change, it begins to settle to the bottom. On Earth, silica falls out of solution in places like lake and ocean floors and can form in hot springs and geysers, somewhat similar to environments in Yellowstone National Park.

Since scientists expect this opal from Gale Crater to have formed in the modern Martian era, these subterranean networks of fractures could have been much more habitable than the harsh modern conditions on the surface.

“Given the extensive fracture networks found in Gale Crater, it is reasonable to expect that these potentially habitable subterranean conditions will also extend to many other areas of Gale Crater, and possibly other regions of Mars,” Gabriel said. “These environments would have formed long after the ancient Gale Crater lakes dried up.”

The importance of finding opal on Mars will have benefits for future astronauts, and exploration efforts could take advantage of these extensive water resources. Opal itself is made up of mainly two components: silica and water – with water content ranging from 3 to 21% by weight – with minor amounts of impurities such as iron. This means that if you grind it and apply heat, the opal releases its water. In a previous study, Gabriel and other Curiosity rover scientists demonstrated this exact process. Combined with the growing evidence from satellite data that shows the presence of opal elsewhere on Mars, these resilient materials could be an excellent resource for future exploration activities elsewhere on Mars.

Materials provided by Arizona State University.

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