High concentrations of silica indicates water activity on Mars.
NASA’s Curiosity rover began close up investigation of dark sand dunes on Mars almost a week ago.
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When rover reached the area called "Marias Pass” and looked at the composition of the surface, it found something unexpected there. There is plenty of silica in the area. In some sites, there were much higher concentrations of silica than Curiosity ever found before on its trip to Mars.
Silica is a rock forming chemical which combines silicon and oxygen, which is found on Earth as quartz. Researchers are perplexed at the detection of such high levels of silica in a lower and older geological unit of mudstone because the finding reflects “considerable water activity" on Mars.
"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," said Albert Yen, a Curiosity science team member at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "Either of those processes involve water. If we can determine which happened, we'll learn more about other conditions in those ancient wet environments."
The finding was made possible through ChemCam, a laser-firing instrument with the ability to check rock’s composition from a distance.
Curiosity’s research is considering two hypotheses to explain this finding on Mount Sharp. Either water carried away other ingredients and left silica behind or alkaline water brought in dissolved silica that sat down there.
The presence of silica was not the only surprise unraveled. When Curiosity drilled a rock named Buckskin and collected samples from it, some silica was found in tridymite as well. Tridymite is a mineral that originates at high temperature in ingenious rocks on Earth. Tridymite found at Buckskin may hint on magmatic evolution on Mars.
"We could solve this by determining whether trydymite in the sediment comes from a volcanic source or has another origin," said Liz Rampe from NASA's Johnson Space Center. "A lot of us are in our labs trying to see if there's a way to make tridymite without such a high temperature."
Curiosity has been studying climate and geological layers of Mount Sharp since 2014. After close inspection, rover suggested that lakes existed in the area billions of years ago could make Martian atmosphere favorable for life. But as the investigation continues, researchers are finding new details about Mars geology which they had never thought before.
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“What we're seeing on Mount Sharp is dramatically different from what we saw in the first two years of the mission," said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity Project Scientist at JPL. "There's so much variability within relatively short distances. The silica is one indicator of how the chemistry changed. It's such a multifaceted and curious discovery, we're going to take a while figuring it out.”