Curiosity finds Mars rock similar to Hawaiian stone

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 4:49am

When scientists selected a rock to test the Mars rover Curiosity's laser, they expected it to contain the same minerals as rocks found elsewhere on the red planet, but learned instead it was more similar to a rock found on earth.

The rock was chemically more akin to a type of rock found on oceanic islands like Hawaii and St Helena, as well as in continental rift zones like the Rio Grande, which extends from Colorado to Chihuahua, Mexico.

"It was a bit of a surprise, what we found," Curiosity scientist Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, said on Thursday. "It's igneous," he said - rock formed from molten material. "But it seems to be a new kind of rock type that we encountered on Mars."

Curiosity arrived on Mars two months ago to learn if the most earth-like planet in the solar system was suited to microbial life.

Last month, Curiosity's laser was used to zap the football-sized rock and the rover analysed the pulverised material to determine its chemical composition.

Scientists found the rock lacks magnesium and iron - elements found in igneous rock examined by previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. It is also rich in feldspar-like minerals, which gave clues about its history.

"The way in which this type of rock forms … is like how applejack liquor was made," geologist Edward Stolper, with the California Institute of Technology, said.

In colonial times, apple cider was put into barrels and in the winter the liquid would partly freeze. "You'd crystallise out ice and you'd make more and more and more concentrated apple-flavoured liquor," he said. Magma inside a planet could undergo a similar process. "You melt the interior and it comes to the surface and, just like the applejack, when you cool it, it crystallises."

The rover meanwhile has moved on to testing and cleaning its soil scoop. Scientists want to funnel soil to Curiosity's onboard lab for more extensive analysis.