The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has confirmed that the Mars Curiosity rover has found its first mineral match from the orbit. The oxidization level in the sample suggests it may have provided a chemical energy source for microbes.
The rover collected the red rock powder after drilling into a rock located at the base of the Mount Sharp region on Mars. A robotic arm attached to the rover carried a small amount of the sample Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, which is located inside the spacecraft.
NASA reveals that the sample contains hematite and its level is much more than any previous soil or rock sample examined by CheMin during the entire span of the mission.
The scientists explain that hematite is a type of iron oxide mineral, which can give clues regarding ancient environmental conditions on the planet from the time it was actually formed.
The Curiosity rover landed in a region of Mars, which has been named the Gale Crater. Ralph Milliken of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, who is also a member of Curiosity rover's science team, reveals that selecting Gale Crater as the landing site for the rover has become fruitful after the discovery of mineralogical information at the site.
"We're now on a path where the orbital data can help us predict what minerals we'll find and make good choices about where to drill. Analyses like these will help us place rover-scale observations into the broader geologic history of Gale that we see from orbital data," says Milliken.
The scientists revealed that previously analyzed rocks by Curiosity contained magnetite as well as other iron oxide minerals. NASA suggests that a way for hematite to form is to expose magnetite to oxidizing conditions. The latest sample contains about eight percent hematite and four percent magnetite. Previous samples contained a maximum of one percent hematite.
NASA scientists suggest that the preservation of magnetite and olivine in the latest sample indicates a gradient of oxidation levels, which may have provided a source of chemical energy for microbes.
Curiosity was launched from the Earth in November 2011 and it reached the surface of the Red Planet in early August 2012. The key objective of the mission is to investigate and analyze the Martian climate and ecology.
The latest hematite found is very important for the mission, and scientists hope that the Curiosity will provide even greater information about Mars in the near term.