PHOTO Science

Did this Martian crater once have a lake?

Fresh analysis of spectrometric data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows that a crater named for NASA astronomer Dean McLaughlin may have at one time been the basin for a ground-water fed lake. Scientists base this on the deposits of what are known as “carbonate rocks,” detected by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) array housed on the Orbiter.

Carbonate rocks are sedimentary rocks that form when carbon precipitates out of water. Over centuries, small amounts of minerals form larger and larger coatings, eventually becoming the rocks that the MRO scientists were looking to find. But, because there don’t seem to be any obvious tributaries – rivers or streams – present as there are elsewhere on Mars, the assumption is that this lake was formed by water seeping up from beneath the crater to fill the basin:

The new information comes from researchers analyzing spectrometer data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which looked down on the floor of McLaughlin Crater. The Martian crater is 57 miles (92 kilometers) in diameter and 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) deep. McLaughlin’s depth apparently once allowed underground water, which otherwise would have stayed hidden, to flow into the crater’s interior.

McLaughlin Crater is approximately 100 miles from the landing site of the short-lived Pathfinder expedition, which launched in 1996. It is about 160 or so lines of longitude away from the Curiosity rover, so it stands to reason that this is not a feature of Mars that Curiosity will be exploring. You can see in the image the concentric circular shapes that scientists believe are the layers of sedimentary rock.

This Week on Mars

Martian blueberries, dry ice snowfalls and Curiosity tests robotic arm

The rate at which we are getting data back from Mars continues to amaze me. We have two working robots on the surface of Mars, plus the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, all beaming back new information in what seems like daily increments. With that in mind, I thought I’d summarize the current state of the Mars project as it happens.

“Blueberries” and.. not “blueberries”:

A subject on which I’m just catching up now. Apparently, the Mars rover Opportunity has been studying what scientists have nicknamed “blueberries” on the surface of Mars since it landed. The blueberries are actually round pellets of iron-rich sedimentary rock that scientists believe were formed when Mars still had liquid water on its surface.

But what Opportunity has discovered nowis a bit of a mystery. They look similar, but apparently have a completely different composition. Scientists used a laser spectrometer to analyze the contents and discovered that the new spherules have concentric spheres of composition. “They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle,” says Steve Squyres of Cornell University.

So… apparently, Mars is the Home of the Whopper? Time will tell..

Dippin’ Dots, my ass.

Curiosity flexes its arm:

Curiosity continues to go through system-wide diagnostics as it preps for its mission. One major component of the Mars Curiosity Rover is its robotic arm, loaded to the gills with scientific whiz-bang. Since September 5th, JPL engineers have been testing out the 7 foot long arm and its tools, getting ready for Curiosity to touch its first Martian rocks.

The robotic arm includes the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), which is the same technology Opportunity used to test the composition of the blueberries. The arm is also equipped with a camera which it can use to take close-up, color photos of rocks. The press release notes that this is the fifth week of a two year mission, but doesn’t say what the next step will be.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!:

For those of you dreading the oncoming Rochester winter, take heart! There is in fact a place with even shittier winters: the southern pole of Mars.

Scientists analyzing data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have discovered the best evidence yet that winter on Mars brings carbon dioxide snowfalls to its south pole. While scientists have known about carbon dioxide ice on the polar caps for decades, this represents the first time they’ve been able to show evidence that the atmosphere produces carbon dioxide clouds that grow thick enough to produce precipitation. Carbon dioxide, remember, freezes at -193°.

So, like, buck up, Rochesterians!