Curiosity Determines Age of Martian Rocks

Posted December 13th, 2013 at 7:33 pm (UTC+0)
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This sequence of images from Curiosity's Front Hazard-Avoidance Camera shows the rover drilling into a rock target (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This sequence of images from Curiosity’ show the rover drilling into a rock target. (NASA)

The Curiosity Rover has accomplished yet another first as it continues its amazing journey across the Martian landscape.

Scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have been able to successfully determine the age of a Martian rock.

But what makes this finding special is that, for the first time, scientists have been able to do so on Mars itself, using some of the science tools built into the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

The team’s long-distance analysis has determined that the rocks they examined were about 3.86 to 4.56 billion years old.

The Caltech team got the go ahead to conduct its research after submitting a proposal to officials leading the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.  To determine the age of rocks on Mars, they proposed using research techniques similar to those used by scientists who’ve done the same thing with alien rocks found here on Earth.

Back in March, while exploring the Yellowknife Bay area of Mars’ Gale Crater, the Curiosity rover used a drill mounted on its robotic arm to bore a couple of holes into fine-grained sedimentary rock, called mudstone.

A mosaic of images from Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into Martian mudstone. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

A mosaic of images from Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into Martian mudstone. (NASA)

Scientists said that these rocks were deposited in the bed of what they think is an ancient lake that may have flowed on Mars 3.6 million years ago.

Next, the rover scooped up the powdered rock that was produced by drilling into the rocks.The Sample Analysis on Mars instrument (SAM), which is installed aboard the Curiosity, conducted a number of chemical analyses on the powered rock samples, including several geochronology or rock-dating techniques.

Farley and his colleagues say there might be a bit of uncertainty regarding their measurements because the sedimentary rocks they studied were created in layers, over millions of years, with materials that had eroded from the local surroundings. The researchers presume the age of the samples they analyzed is actually a combined age of the different particles that the rocks were made of.

The Curiosity rover left the Yellowknife Bay research area and is moving on to new places to drill for rock samples as it makes its way to its eventual destination on Mount Sharp. The new drill sites will provide even more opportunities for scientists to analyze and date Martian rocks.

View into one of the drillholes in Martian mudstone made by Curiosity in the Yellowknife Bay area of Gale Crater. A sample of powdered material from the rock was used to determine the age of the rocks. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

A drill hole in the Martian mudstone made by Curiosity. A sample of powdered material from the rock was used to determine the age of the rocks. (NASA)

Caltech geochemist Ken Farley, who led the research, said that he and his colleagues will probably have Curiosity drill into more Martian rocks sometime in January to further test their rock dating techniques.

A paper that outlines the work done by the Caltech team has been published in the journal Science Express.

The team said its recent findings might not only help scientists better understand the geologic history of the red planet, but could also help support the MSL’s mission team in its search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.

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