The dirt on Curiosity: new report card for its first 100 days
Curiosity did a lot in its first 100 Martian days, including finding evidence for surface water on Mars for extended periods in the past. Five new studies chronicle Curiosity's first findings.
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In relatively short order, the Mini Cooper-size rover answered in broad terms the key question the mission's scientists wanted to answer: Was the environment in Gale Crater, the rover's exploration zone, potentially hospitable for life?
Curiosity found evidence that liquid water accumulated or flowed across the crater floor for extended periods, and hints contained in minerals and rocks suggest the answer to the mission's overarching question is "yes."
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At this point, Curiosity is now 406 sols into its mission, but researchers are tying a bow around the first phase of the mission by publishing formal reports on the early findings in five papers in Friday's issue of the journal Science, as well as a paper set for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
Sol 100 represents a geological turning point in the mission, where Curiosity's focus shifted from looking at soil and loose material on the surface to exposed bedrock, says John Grotzinger, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and the mission's project scientist. The papers "wrap this up very nicely."
One of the most surprising discoveries involved a pyramid-shaped rock some 20 inches tall the team named Jake Matijevic, after an engineer who played a key role in designing Curiosity but who passed away shortly after the craft landed on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012.
Analysis of the rock, detailed in one of the five Science papers, showed that while it had a volcanic origin, its composition had never been seen before on Mars.
If the rock had been found on Earth, "we would have been hard-pressed to tell from its whole-rock chemical composition that it is Martian," wrote Edward Stolper, a CalTech geologist who led the team analyzing the rock. Instead, its composition was comparable to the the basaltic rock found along mid-ocean ridges or on volcanic islands in the ocean, where magma wells up from Earth's mantle and forms fresh crust.
Based on its chemistry, the rock would have been right at home among the volcanic rocks found on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, the team found.