NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo by John Schreiber.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo by John Schreiber.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo by John Schreiber.

A NASA robotic geologist drilled into a rocky outcrop on Mars and recovered a sample that was analyzed and identified as hematite, giving scientists the mission’s initial confirmation of the presence of a mineral first detected from orbit, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced Tuesday.

The rover Curiosity drilled into rock at the base of Mars’ Mount Sharp in late September, according to JPL, which is managing the mission. The rover’s robotic arm then collected a pinch of red powder at the site and transferred it to Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy Instrument for analysis.

The rover was working at a site where hematite was detected in 2010 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The surface-level analysis by Curiosity “connects us with the mineral identifications from orbit, which can now help guide our investigations as we climb the slope and test hypotheses derived from the orbital mapping,” said Curiosity Project scientist John Grotzinger.

Ralph Milliken, another member of Curiosity’s science team, said, “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.”

The car-sized Curiosity, which weighs about a ton, was launched from Cape Canaveral on Nov. 26, 2011, and landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, 2012. The landing site was near the three-mile-high Mount Sharp, which is inside the 96-mile wide Gale Crater. The site is believed to have once had liquid water on the surface.

The $2.5 billion mission is part of NASA’s continuing effort to determine if Mars ever had favorable conditions to support life. Scientists believe that the presence of water is essential for life to develop.

Curiosity is equipped with 10 science instruments, including a mast that extends to seven feet above ground for cameras and a laser-firing apparatus to study objects from a distance. The rover also includes analytical instruments to determine the composition of rock and soil samples collected with the rover arm’s drill and scoop.

The rover also has instruments to study the planet’s environment, including the weather and natural radiation.

Curiosity had previously detected hematite in samples found at another site, known as Yellowknife Bay, but at lower concentrations than those found at Mount Sharp.

“The latest samples has about 8 percent hematite and 4 percent magnetite,” according to the NASA statement. “The drilled rocks at Yellowknife Bay and on the way to Mount Sharp contain at most about 1 percent hematite and more higher amounts of magnetite.”

One way hematite forms is when magnetite is subjected to oxidizing conditions. The rock material interacted with water and atmosphere to become more oxidized, according to NASA.

City News Service

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