NASA notes: Apollo 11, Curiosity and the ISS (part two)

Curiosity self-portrait at 'Windjana' drilling site photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity self-portrait at ‘Windjana’ drilling site
photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA–The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is continuing to push the envelope with cutting edge research, extending man’s reach into the future of exploration both in outer space and on planet Earth. In acknowledgement of milestones of three major achievements among the many that NASA has made on the moon, on Mars and in low Earth orbit, last week we recalled the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. This week we explore Mars with the Curiosity rover. Next week we conclude with a look at the International Space Station.
Happy Martian Birthday Rover Curiosity

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover completed a Martian year (687 Earth days) on June 24, having accomplished the mission’s main goal of determining whether Mars once offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. One of Curiosity’s first major findings after landing on the Red Planet in August 2012 was an ancient riverbed at its landing site. Nearby, at an area known as Yellowknife Bay, the mission met its main goal of determining whether the Martian Gale Crater ever was habitable for simple life forms. The answer, a historic ‘yes,’ came from two mudstone slabs that the rover sampled with its drill. Analysis of these samples revealed the site was once a lakebed with mild water, the essential elemental ingredients for life, and a type of chemical energy source used by some microbes on Earth. If Mars had living organisms, this would have been a good home for them.

Another important finding during the first Martian year include the first determinations of the age of a rock on Mars and how long a rock has been exposed to harmful radiation provide prospects for learning when water flowed and for assessing degradation rates of organic compounds in rocks and soils. Curiosity paused in driving this spring to drill and collect a sample from a sandstone site called Windjana. The rover currently is carrying some of the rock-powder sample collected at the site for follow-up analysis.

“Windjana has more magnetite than previous samples we’ve analyzed,” said David Blake, principal investigator for Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. “A key question is whether this magnetite is a component of the original basalt or resulted from later processes, such as would happen in water-soaked basaltic sediments. The answer is important to our understanding of habitability and the nature of the early-Mars environment.”

Preliminary indications are that the rock contains a more diverse mix of clay minerals than was found in the mission’s only previously drilled rocks, the mudstone targets at Yellowknife Bay. Windjana also contains an unexpectedly high amount of the mineral orthoclase, a potassium-rich feldspar that is one of the most abundant minerals in Earth’s crust never before been definitively detected on Mars.

JPL manages NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, and built the project’s Curiosity rover.

For more about the mission, visit the website at www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl