Mars: More water and more questions

NASA announced the week that Curiosity has backtracked to a formation it passed a few months ago to take a closer look at deposits of silica.C00002

Silica is silicon dioxide, a mineral which makes up 26% of the earth’s crust by weight. Silica based minerals include quartz, opal and tridymite. Tridymite is rare on earth and is usually found in areas which have experienced magma flow. NASA scientists were surprised to find it in the silica deposits examined by Curiosity.

Why is all this important?

Quoting Albert Yen, a member of Curiosity’s science team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

“These high-silica compositions are a puzzle. You can boost the concentration of silica either by leaching away other ingredients while leaving the silica behind, or by bringing in silica from somewhere else. Either of those processes involve water. If we can determine which happened, we’ll learn more about other conditions in those ancient wet environments.”

Curiosity began encountering these high-percentage silica deposits approximately seven months ago as it began to ascend a formation named Mr. Sharp.

During these seven months it has moved approximately one-third of a mile, or less than 1,800 feet. To put that in perspective, most of us could walk that in five minutes.

The people who design, implement and run robotic space exploration programs are among the most talented people the world has ever seen.

And yet, we are able to study only very small patches of Mars at a time.

How much more could we learn if one or two geologists could spend a day or two following silica deposits a few miles, looking on the edges as they did so?

Someday.