Curiosity’s surprising geological finds and spectacular self-portrait

Scott Sutherland
GeekquinoxNovember 2, 2012

The Mars Curiosity rover has been parked at an area of the Gale Crater called 'Rocknest' for a few weeks now, testing out more of its instruments, and it has found some surprising results.

Earlier this week it was reported that the rover had detected gypsum (calcium sulphate) at its location. Gypsum was first found on Mars by the Opportunity rover last December, and this particular type of rock is an important find on the red planet because the only way we know that gypsum is formed is when lava is exposed to the minerals in sea water. Speculation is that the area of the Gale Crater was a shallow ocean when something (probably an asteroid) hit the planet and blasted out the crater. The impact would have melted the rocks, and the gypsum formed when shallow ocean waters rushed into the crater.

More recently, the results from the scoop of Martian dirt Curiosity took last week have been released. The analysis of the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument shows that the minerals in the martian soil are very similar to the weathered volcanic rocks found on the slopes of Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawaii.

[ Related: Canadian Space Agency rolls out prototype planetary rovers ]

"Much of Mars is covered with dust, and we had an incomplete understanding of its mineralogy," said David Bish, CheMin co-investigator and professor of mineralogy at Indiana University, according to JPL News. "We now know it is mineralogically similar to basaltic material, with significant amounts of feldspar, pyroxene and olivine, which was not unexpected. Roughly half the soil is non-crystalline material, such as volcanic glass or products from weathering of the glass. "

"So far, the materials Curiosity has analyzed are consistent with our initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater recording a transition through time from a wet to dry environment. The ancient rocks, such as the conglomerates, suggest flowing water, while the minerals in the younger soil are consistent with limited interaction with water." Bish added.

[ Related: Mars Curiosity rover scoop tests turn up bright Martian 'schmutz' ]

Also, since the rover was parked in one place for so long, the NASA scientists had Curiosity take some time to snap pictures, which the team then used to piece together an awesome self-portrait of the rover. What's more is that they took the pictures from two different angles, which were then assembled to form a 3D image! (NASA has a guide to building your own 3D glasses here. The directions call for sheets of red and blue acetate