Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Curiosity Rover Finds Silica on Mars. A Sign of Ancient Flowing Water?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Curiosity Rover Finds Silica on Mars. A Sign of Ancient Flowing Water?

Article excerpt

After more than three years of exploring Mars, NASA's robotic detective, Curiosity, has stumbled on a couple of intriguing discoveries that could help scientists piece together the puzzle of how water formed, moved, and then either froze or disappeared from the Red Planet.

In the last several months, Curiosity has for the first time found an abundance of the rock-forming chemical silica, a mineral composed of silicon and oxygen and, on Earth, usually deposited by water.

"We don't have a full understanding yet of what this means," said Jens Frydenvang an astro-geologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico of the discoveries in a short video.

"On earth, all the environments where we find this kind of silica require some kind of water activity," he explained. "Often it's also a very nice environment to find microbial life."

And, "adding to the puzzle," as NASA explains, some of the silica at one Martian rock Curiosity drilled, called "Buckskin," is in a mineral named tridymite, which is rare on Earth and has never been seen on Mars.

On our own planet, the mineral can be found in the silica-rich rocks spewed by volcanoes, so the discovery of tridymite at Buckskin may be evidence for the evolution of volcanoes on Mars. Or maybe tridymite is formed by a different process on the Red Planet, say scientists who are analyzing the latest findings from Curiosity.

"We could solve this by determining whether trydymite in the sediment comes from a volcanic source or has another origin," said Elizabeth Rampe, a planetary geologist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"A lot of us are in our labs trying to see if there's a way to make tridymite without such a high temperature," she said.

For seven months, Curiosity has been traversing an area of the Red Planet scientists call Marias Pass, near the base of a mountain called Mount Sharp. …

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