Gale Crater: Geological 'sweet shop' awaits Mars rover
Published: 4th Aug 2012 00:41:55
John Grotzinger is the project scientist on Nasa's latest multi-billion-dollar mission to Mars.
He's going to become a familiar face in the coming months as he explains to TV audiences the importance of the discoveries that are made by the most sophisticated spacecraft ever sent to touch the surface of another world.
The Curiosity Rover - also called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) - is set to land on Monday (GMT) for a minimum two-year exploration of a deep hole on Mars' equator known as Gale Crater.
The depression was punched out by an asteroid or comet billions of years ago.
The lure for Grotzinger and his fellow scientists is the huge mound of rock rising 5km from the crater floor.
Mount Sharp, as they refer to it, looks from satellite pictures to be constructed from ancient sediments - some deposited when Mars still had abundant water at its surface.
That makes it an exciting place to consider the possibility that those distant times may also once have supported microbial life.
And Curiosity, with its suite of 10 instruments, will test this habitability hypothesis.
Grotzinger is a geologist affiliated to the California Institute of Technology and he recently took the BBC Horizon programme to the mountains of the nearby Mojave Desert to illustrate the work the rover will be doing on Mars.
He climbed to a level and then pointed to the rock sediments on the far side of the valley.
"What you see here is a stack of layers that tell us about the early environmental history of Earth, representing hundreds of millions of years," he told Horizon.
"They read like a book of Earth history and they tell us about different chapters in the evolution of early environments, and life.
"And the cool thing about going to Mount Sharp and Gale Crater is that there we'll have a different book about the early environmental history of Mars.
"It will tell us something equally interesting, and we just don't know what it is yet," he said.
Curiosity dwarfs all previous landing missions undertaken by the Americans.
At 900kg, it's a behemoth. It's nearly a hundred times more massive than the first robot rover Nasa sent to Mars in 1997.
Curiosity will trundle around the foothills of Mount Sharp much like a human field geologist might walk through Mojave's valleys. Except the rover has more than a hammer in its rucksack.
It has hi-res cameras to look for features of interest. If a particular boulder catches the eye, Curiosity can zap it with an infrared laser and examine the resulting surface spark to query the rock's elemental composition.
If that signature intrigues, the rover will use its long arm to swing over a microscope and an X-ray spectrometer to take a closer look.
Still interested? Curiosity can drill into the boulder and deliver a powdered sample to two high-spec analytical boxes inside the rover belly.
These will lay bare the rock's precise make-up, and the conditions under which it formed.
"We're not just scratching and sniffing and taking pictures - we're boring into rock, getting that powder and analysing it in these laboratories," deputy project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada, told the BBC.
"These are really university laboratories that would normally fill up a room but which have been shrunk down - miniaturised - and made safe for the space environment, and then flown on this rover to Mars."
The intention on Monday is to put MSL-Curiosity down on the flat plain of the crater bottom.
The vehicle will then drive up to the base of Mount Sharp.
In front of it, the rover should find clay minerals (phyllosilicates) that will give a fresh insight into the wet, early era of the Red Planet known as the Noachian. Clays only form when rock spends a lot of time in contact with water.
Above the clays, a little further up the mountain, the rover should find sulphate salts, which relate to the Hesperian Era - a time when Mars was still wet but beginning to dry out.
"Going to Gale will give us the opportunity to study a key transition in the climate of Mars - from the Noachian to the Hesperian," said Sanjeev Gupta, an Imperial College London scientist on the mission.
"The rocks we believe preserve that with real fidelity, and the volume of data we get from Curiosity will be just extraordinary."
The rover is not a life-detection mission; it does not possess the capability to identify any bugs in the soil or huddled under rocks (not that anyone really expects to find microbes in the cold, dry, and irradiated conditions that persist at the surface of Mars today).
But what Curiosity can do is characterise any organic (carbon-rich) chemistry that may be present.
All life as we know it on Earth trades off a source of complex carbon molecules, such as amino acids - just as it needs water and energy.
Previous missions, notably the Viking landers in the 1970s, have hinted at the presence of organics on Mars. But if Curiosity could make the definitive identification of organics in Gale Crater, it would be a eureka moment and go a long way towards demonstrating that the Red Planet did indeed have habitable environments in its ancient past.
It's a big ask, though. Even in Earth rocks where we know sediments have been laid down in proximity to biology, we still frequently find no organic traces. The evidence doesn't preserve well.
And, of course, there are plenty of non-biological processes that will produce organics, so it wouldn't be an "A equals B" situation even if Curiosity were to make the identification.
Nonetheless, some members of the science team still dream of finding tantalising chemical markers in Gale's rocks.
Dawn Sumner, from the University of California at Davis, is one of them.
"Under very specific circumstances - if life made a lot of organic molecules and they are preserved and they haven't reacted with the rocks in Gale Crater, we may be able to tell that they were created by life. It's a remote possibility, but it's something I at least hope we can find," she said.
"I am confident we will learn amazing new things. Some of them will be answers to questions we already have, but most of what we learn will be surprises to us.
"We've only been on the ground on Mars in six places, and it's a huge planet.
"Gale Crater and Mount Sharp are unlike anything we've been to before. That guarantees we will learn exciting new things from Curiosity."
Horizon: Mission to Mars was broadcast on BBC Two Monday 30 July. Watch online via iPlayer (UK only) or browse more Horizon clips at the above link.
At 18:57:29 in EnglandThe summer of 2013 saw a sleepy Sussex village hit the headlines as months of protests over fracking led to dozens of arrests.
At 18:54:29 in EnglandA man arrested when a 19-year-old was hit by a car on the M23 near Crawley has been freed without charge.
At 18:48:57 in SportBritish number one Laura Robson will miss the French Open and Wimbledon after having minor wrist surgery.
At 18:48:12 in ScotlandLandowners have reacted angrily to claims the persecution of birds of prey on Scotland's grouse moors has returned to levels last seen in the Victorian era.
At 18:38:55 in EnglandKeyhole surgery for upper gastrointestinal cancer (GI) has been stopped indefinitely at a Kent hospital after the deaths of five patients.
At 18:36:55 in EnglandA man in his 70s died when his car crossed a junction and hit a fence in Weybridge.
At 18:26:57 in Northern IrelandA 20-year-old woman has been the victim of a serious sexual assault in Armagh.
At 18:24:04 in ScotlandThe case against a delivery van driver accused of causing the death of a nine-year-old boy on an Aberdeenshire street has been found not proven.
At 18:20:02 in EnglandA man who died in a house fire in Gateshead has been named.
At 18:11:51 in ScotlandA former West Lothian councillor has been convicted of embezzling an elderly couple's life savings.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Gale Crater: Geological 'sweet shop' awaits Mars rover [Online] (Updated 4th Aug 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1444451/Gale-Crater-Geological-sweet-shop-awaits-Mars-rover [Accessed 17th Apr 2014]
News In Other Categories
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
BBC News presenter George Alagiah has been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Russia's foreign minister and the US secretary of state have said that all sides have agreed to steps to "de-escalate" the crisis in Ukraine.
China's largest Twitter-like service, Weibo, has had a lukewarm reception on the first day of its listing on the US stock market.
BBC News presenter George Alagiah has been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
The summer of 2013 saw a sleepy Sussex village hit the headlines as months of protests over fracking led to dozens of arrests.