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NASA's Curiosity discovers water in the dust that coats Mars

September 27, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • An image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows fine-grained soil on the Martian surface.
An image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows fine-grained… (Courtesy of NASA…)

A series of discoveries from NASA's Curiosity rover are giving scientists a picture of Mars that looks increasingly complex, with small bits of water spread around the surface and an interior that could have been more geologically mature than experts had previously thought.

Curiosity's formidable arsenal of scientific instruments has detected traces of water chemically bound to the Martian dust that seems to be covering the entire planet. The finding, among several in the five studies published online Thursday by the journal Science, may explain mysterious water signals picked up by satellites in orbit around the Red Planet, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The soil that covers Mars' surface in Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed last year, seems to have two major components, according to data from the rover's laser-shooting Chemistry and Camera instrument. One is a coarse soil with millimeter-wide grains that probably came from the rocks around them; the other is very fine, with grains often a few micrometers in size, the ChemCam data show.

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The fine-grained soil doesn't really match the rocks around it, said Pierre-Yves Meslin of the University of Toulouse in France, who led one of the studies. But it does seem to match the stuff found at sites where other rovers and landers touched down. That means it's probably distributed over much or all of the planet, kicked up and carried far in the fierce dust storms that can shroud the planet in a reddish haze.

The researchers say they don't know where that soil comes from, whether it's created in many places or has one source that gets picked up and blown all over.

Either way, it's a handy, naturally averaged sample of the Martian surface, said Indiana University mineralogist David Bish, who led a different study.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this fine soil is that ChemCam's readings detected a hydrogen signal, which could explain why satellites orbiting Mars have picked up a mysterious water signal in the past, Meslin said.

"It's actually kind of exciting because it's water yet again on Mars, but it's in a different material than we had recognized," said Caltech geologist John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist. "So what Curiosity is doing is just demonstrating that water is present in a number of ways. It just adds to the diversity."

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