Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Taking a Robotic Geologist to Mars

06.08.2012
Mars rover Curiosity is the closest thing to a real geologist landing on Mars.

It will explore the composition of rocks with the help of the world's largest reference database of minerals, housed at the University of Arizona in Tucson.


In this artist's concept of Curiosity, the Mars rover examines a rock with a set of tools at the end of the rover's arm, which extends about 2 meters (7 feet). Two instruments on the arm can study rocks up close. Also, a drill can collect sample material from inside of rocks and a scoop can pick up samples of soil. The arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On Aug. 5, at about 10:30 p.m., an already busy summer will kick into overdrive for University of Arizona geosciences professor Bob Downs and one of his graduate students, Shaunna Morrison. At that time ­ provided everything goes as planned ­ Curiosity, the most sophisticated exploration vehicle ever sent to another planet, will parachute toward the Martian surface faster than the speed of sound after a nine-month journey through space. And as soon as it sinks its six wheels into the red dust, the two scientists specializing in mineralogy will have not one, but two planets to deal with.

As ³primary data downlink leaders² designated by NASA, Downs and Morrison are part of a team of scientists tasked with the identification of rocks that Curiosity will encounter during its two-year expedition across the floor of Gale Crater near the Martian equator.

³The Curiosity rover is the next best thing to sending a geologist to Mars,² said Downs. ³It carries all the necessary equipment that we would use here on Earth when we study rocks and minerals.²

NASA¹s latest in a series of Mars rovers is also the biggest and best of the bunch. Two times larger and five times heavier than the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity rivals a small SUV in size and carries 15 times the weight of the scientific instruments that Spirit and Opportunity have. Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity was designed to survey the Martian landscape and examine rocks up close. It is the first rover lacking solar panels, which suffered from frequent accumulations of dust.

Instead, a dustbin-sized nuclear generator mounted to the rover¹s back powers the vehicle and its scientific payload. The heat generated by the radioactive decay of non-weapons-grade plutonium-238 is turned into electrical power supplying the rover¹s batteries day and night.

Curiosity is the first rover sent to another planet capable of not only navigating the terrain, but scooping up and analyzing rock and dust samples. Its mission is to venture up to 12 miles from its landing site and explore the area for past or present conditions favorable for life, and conditions capable of preserving a record of life. The rover is expected to collect, grind and analyze about 70 samples of soil and rock.

Downs and Morrison are members of the science team in charge of CheMin, one of 10 scientific instruments mounted on the rover. CheMin, short for chemistry and mineralogy, is the first X-ray diffractometer ever sent to space, said Downs.

³It works by shooting X-rays at a rock sample, which interact with the electrons in the rock and send back signals that are like fingerprints,² he explained. ³It's the standard for identifying minerals, just what you would do in a lab here on Earth.²

Once CheMin has finished analyzing a rock sample, which can take up to 10 hours, Curiosity will send the data to Earth, where Downs and Morrison will be among those who gather the data and interpret them.

Downs has accumulated the largest database of minerals in the world. About
5,000 small vials, neatly labeled and stored in a cabinet in his lab, represent about 2,200 species of the approximate 4,600 known Earth minerals, more than any other lab in the world. The scientists will use that database to figure out what minerals make up the sample that Curiosity scooped up millions of miles away based on its X-ray ³fingerprint,² which is unique to each mineral.

³The beauty of X-ray diffraction is that even if we get a sample of an unknown mineral, we can figure out its exact chemical composition and structure.²

The technique was not an option on previous, solar-powered rovers because it requires high energies of about 45,000 volts.

Another instrument, ChemCam, short for chemistry through the camera, combines a camera with a mass spectrometer to analyze rocks from a distance.

In Star-Wars-like fashion, ChemCam, mounted onto the rover¹s mast, will shoot a laser beam at a rock up to 23 feet away, vaporize a small amount of it and a spectrometer will analyze the rock¹s chemical composition based on the pattern of the reflected light. The idea is to sample the terrain from a distance and get a rough overview of its composition before sending the rover for a close investigation. In addition, the rover is equipped with a magnifying glass and a digital camera providing real-color, close-up views of rocks.

³That¹s the first thing a geologist would do here on Earth,² Downs said.
³Take your hand lens to the rock and ask, what are we looking at here? If it¹s anything of interest, we would focus on it, grab the stuff and really figure out what it is.²

Curiosity¹s landing site was carefully selected to yield as much information as possible about Mars¹ geologic past. Images and spectroscopic analyses taken from an orbit around Mars by the UA-operated HiRISE camera have identified minerals at the bottom of Gale Crater, such as clays and sulfates, which require liquid water to form.

Of special interest is Mount Sharp, a central mound rising about 3.4 miles from the crater bottom. The rock layering in Mount Sharp suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of sediments preserving clues to the geologic past of Mars, waiting to be deciphered.

³It turns out that near the place we're going to land, there are some boulders that may have rolled down the mountain,² Downs said, ³so we might able to sample parts of the mountain without actually having to go up there.²

Morrison is especially fascinated by rare Earth minerals, a group of minerals comprising about 300 known species on Earth. Some of them are poorly understood, others are still waiting to be discovered and described scientifically.

Rare Earth minerals attract increasing interest from scientists and engineers because of their unique chemical properties. Some of them have strong magnetic properties, enabling engineers to build smaller electrical motors or tiny yet powerful speakers.

³Rare Earth minerals are heavily used in almost all our modern technology,² Morrison explained. ³iPods, TVs, LED screens, they all depend on those minerals.²

During Curiosity¹s mission, she hopes to be able to divide her time between her Earthly research and helping identify minerals on Mars.
Currently, she is involved in a study trying to characterize a previously unknown Rare Earth mineral.

Finding Rare Earth minerals on Mars would be a surprise to scientists because it is thought that in terms of its mineral evolution Mars never got quite as far as the Earth.

³Two-thirds of known minerals on Earth formed because of interactions among rocks, atmosphere and life,² Downs said. ³Mars may not have gone that far. We may find that it Œfroze¹ at an earlier stage so to speak.²

Asked if he expected to find any mineral on Mars that does not occur on Earth, he paused, then said, ³I don't know. Probably not, but I hope there is something new. Just for the challenge, you know?²
Science Contact:
Bob Downs
Department of Geosciences
The University of Arizona
520-626-8092
rdowns@u.arizona.edu
Media Contact:
Daniel Stolte
University Communications
The University of Arizona
520-626-4402
stolte@email.arizona.edu

Daniel Stolte | The University of Arizona
Further information:
http://www.arizona.edu
http://uanews.org/story/taking-robotic-geologist-mars

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Fizzy soda water could be key to clean manufacture of flat wonder material: Graphene

Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.

As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...

Im Focus: Exotic quantum states made from light: Physicists create optical “wells” for a super-photon

Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.

Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...

Im Focus: Circular RNA linked to brain function

For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...

Im Focus: RAVAN CubeSat measures Earth's outgoing energy

An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...

Im Focus: Scientists shine new light on the “other high temperature superconductor”

A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Call for Papers – ICNFT 2018, 5th International Conference on New Forming Technology

16.08.2017 | Event News

Sustainability is the business model of tomorrow

04.08.2017 | Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

On the way to developing a new active ingredient against chronic infections

21.08.2017 | Life Sciences

Smart Computers

21.08.2017 | Information Technology

A Map of the Cell’s Power Station

18.08.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>