Curiosity is spending its weekend investigating an oddity at its newest drill location on Mars, called Breamish. The rover has discovered an unusual rock showing some strange colors, so scientists will use the rover’s chemistry tools to learn more about this unexpected object.
Over the three-day weekend plan for the rover, it will investigate the platy rock target — a type of igneous rock which is split into flat sheets. The rock in question can be seen in the image below, just above Curiosity’s arm. After this task, the rover will be using its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument which analyzes organic molecules and gases both from the atmosphere and from samples, and then return to Breamish and other rocks to analyze them using its ChemCam instrument, which fires a laser at targets to vaporize parts of them and analyze their composition.
Curiosity is currently on a “summer road trip” as it gradually ascends Mount Sharp, the enormous mountain coming out of the floor of the Gale Crater. The rover has been in an area called the clay-bearing unit, named because of the presence of clay minerals in the soil. Now it is moving on toward the sulfate-bearing unit, which, as its name suggests, has sulfates like gypsum and Epsom salts in the soil. These sulfates are of particular interest as they often form when water evaporates, so their presence could give clues to the history of water on Mars.
Scientists know that Mars once had water on its surface, and could even have provided a habitable environment for life. The possibility that there was ancient life on Mars has been the subject of intense study, with rovers working to investigate this question for decades.
“Curiosity was designed to go beyond Opportunity’s search for the history of water,” Abigail Fraeman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who has served as deputy project scientist for both missions, said in a statement. “We’re uncovering an ancient world that offered life a foothold for longer than we realized.”
The search for ancient life will continue with the newest rover, Perseverance, which is set to launch in a few weeks’ time.