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Rosetta Stones

Rosetta Stones

Adventures in the good science of rock-breaking.

Robot Geologist on Mars Makes History

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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?

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

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