ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Rosetta Stones

Rosetta Stones


Adventures in the good science of rock-breaking.
Rosetta Stones Home

Robot Geologist on Mars Makes History

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



One small scoop full of powdered rock, one giant step forward for exogeology. Lovers of the good science of rock-breaking will find their breath catching at this image:

This image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover's scoop. In planned subsequent steps, the sample will be sieved, and portions of it delivered to the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument.  The scoop is 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide.  The image was obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Feb. 20, or Sol 193, Curiosity's 193rd Martian day of operations.  The image has been white-balanced to show what the sample would look like if it were on Earth. A raw-color version is also available.  Image and caption courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. I've cropped it to show off the rock sample.

This image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover's scoop. In planned subsequent steps, the sample will be sieved, and portions of it delivered to the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument. The scoop is 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide. The image was obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Feb. 20, or Sol 193, Curiosity's 193rd Martian day of operations. The image has been white-balanced to show what the sample would look like if it were on Earth. A raw-color version is also available. Image and caption courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. I've cropped it to show off the rock sample.

That’s the first, folks. The first time we’ve ever drilled in to a rock on another planet. We’re doing geology with a robot on another world. Us. Little ol’ us. Makes me glad to be alive, that. Makes me proud to be a human, watching a robot we built doing the science I love, so very far from home.

So that’s bedrock we’re sampling:

The sample comes from a fine-grained, veiny sedimentary rock called “John Klein,” named in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011. The rock was selected for the first sample drilling because it may hold evidence of wet environmental conditions long ago. The rover’s laboratory analysis of the powder may provide information about those conditions.

I know a lot of people are hoping for evidence that life was once possible there. I’ll be honest with you: that might be neat, but I don’t even care. If Mars was never a good place to live, it doesn’t matter to me – what matters is that we made it there, that what we’ve learned here will allow us to puzzle out another planet’s geologic past, that we’re clever enough to figure it out. It matters that Mars has a geologic story to tell, and we know how to read that story. Life, if it ever existed, would just be a bonus at that point. But then, I’m a rock fan: a biologist’s mileage may vary.

I’d love to be there someday, standing in the Martian daylight, preparing to take my hammer to a bona fide extraterrestrial rock. Granted, the light would seem a bit funny – here’s the version that’s not white balanced for Earth standards.

Mars geology in Martian light. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS: cropped from original.

Mars geology in Martian light. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS: cropped from original.

But seeing different rocks in a different light, formed under different conditions – how amazing is that? I can’t wait for the papers that emerge from this mission. Learning the geology of Mars is sure to change our understanding of both planets, and who knows what unexpected horizons will open?

And if we’re really damned lucky, a volcano will pop up while we’re messing about the place. Hey, Curiosity – notice any suspect pits in the ground?

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 4 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Sinned43 10:01 am 02/26/2013

    What? What I want is RESULTS! What is in that sample? Let us who helped pay for this know the results. I think differently than you do. It’s like the saying, “No body wants to here about the pregnant women’s labor pains they just want to see the baby.”

    Link to this
  2. 2. silvrhairdevil 11:51 am 02/26/2013

    Is that rust on the scoop?

    Link to this
  3. 3. cookchh 12:42 pm 02/26/2013

    Doesn’t the term “sedimentary” pretty much assume that water is involved? I don’t see where we are making that jump right off the bat.

    Link to this
  4. 4. khearn 1:05 pm 02/26/2013

    Frankly, I hope we don’t find any evidence of life on Mars. I hope we find it on Europa or other places, but not Mars. If we find life on Mars, we’ll declare it a nature preserve (as we should) and never allow ourselves to terraform it to allow humans to live there.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X