Tag Archives: basalt

The oldest meteorite ever found is older than the Earth itself

The meteorite, which was discovered in the Algerian part of the Sahara Desert, dates from 4.6 billion year ago — before the Earth was truly formed. It’s one of the first building blocks of our solar system. It’s not just any old meteorite: analysis shows it formed volcanically so it was once part of a proto-planet, maybe even one that never really made it.

A piece of the meteorite. Image in public domain. Credits: A. Irving.

“Numerous stones containing distinctive large greenish crystals were found in May 2020 near Bir Ben Takoul, southern Algeria, within the Erg Chech sand sea,” reads a rather dull entry regarding the meteorite. But right from the get-go, researchers knew something was unusual.

No known asteroid looks like EC 002 (the official name of the meteorite) — because almost none of these ancient relics still exist. Since they were formed so long ago, they’ve been either reintegrated into planets or smashed to bits. Meteorites like EC 002 are also very rare, due to its composition.

Most meteorites we’ve found so far are chondritic: stony (non-metallic) meteorites that haven’t been melted. Meanwhile, EC 002 is essentially an igneous rock — an andesite, to be more precise, which is also unusual. Out of the over 50,000 meteorites discovered so far, just 3,179 are not chondrites. Out of these, most are basalts, which makes EC 002 very rare.

Basalt is a common igneous rock not just on Earth but also elsewhere in the solar system. It’s formed by the rapid cooling of basaltic lava, often at the surface (or very close to the surface).

Andesite shares some similarities to basalt, but it has a different chemical make-up and is characteristic of areas where tectonic plates are either sliding by each other or being destroyed one under another. This makes it even rarer because it takes a very special set of circumstances for andesite to reach meteorites. But the surprises kept coming in.

The rock was once molten, and it solidified some 4.565 billion years ago, in a parent body that accreted 4.566 billion years ago. The Earth is 4.54 billion years old, so it’s already older than the Earth. We’re not sure where it formed, but whatever celestial body it formed on, it must have been in its very early days, a part of its primordial crust.

“This meteorite is the oldest magmatic rock analysed to date and sheds light on the formation of the primordial crusts that covered the oldest protoplanets,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

Further analysis also showed that it took the lava over 100,000 years to solidify, indicating that the lava must have been unusually viscous. A lava’s viscosity is given by its temperature, chemical composition, and volatile gas content, so already, geologists can infer certain properties.

It’s always difficult when studying something so old, but finds like this can help shed new light on how our corner of the universe formed and evolved.

The study was published in PNAS.

Researchers have figured out how the Giant’s Causeway came to be

A new study by University of Liverpool geologists has uncovered the secrets of one of the planet’s most impressive geological features: columnar basalts, such as those at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Hexagonal columnar basalts at the Giant’s Causeway. Image credits: Chmee2 / Wikipedia.

The Giant’s Causeway is an area of 40,000 interlocking geometrical basalt columns which were created after a volcanic eruption some 60 million years ago, during a period called the Tertiary. The resulting columns have regular, hexagonal shapes, which have inspired myths, legends, and most recently, geologists.

When a thick lava flows and starts to solidify and cool down, it compresses and starts to fracture. If it cools down very fast, the compressional forces that act on the lava are very strong and can create a regular, cellular system of fractures. These fractures often create hexagonal structures, though shapes with a different number of sides can also be created. If the conditions are right, the resulting columns have smooth geometric shapes.

Researchers have known about this process for quite a while but the temperature at which this process takes place was still a question mark. Now, University of Liverpool researchers have designed a new type of experiment to show how as magma cools, it contracts and accumulates stress, until it cracks.

They recreated the formation of columnar basalts, finding that they fracture when they cool from around 90 to 140˚C below the temperature at which magma crystallizes into rock — which is about 980˚C for basalts. This means that basalts such as those at the Giant’s Causeway were formed at temperatures of around 840-890 ˚C.

Yan Lavallée, Professor of Volcanology, who headed the research, explains:

“The temperature at which magma cools to form these columnar joints is a question that has fascinated the world of geology for a very long time. We have been wanting to know whether the temperature of the lava that causes the fractures was hot, warm or cold.

“I have spent over a decade pondering how to address this question and construct the right experiment to find the answer to this question. Now, with this study, we have found that the answer is hot, but after it solidified.”

Stuðlaberg (Columnar basalt) in Breiðafjörður, Iceland. Image credits: Zinneke / Wikipedia.

Understanding the thermal constraints of this process is not only important for solving a geological mystery, it could also be useful for geothermal energy harnessing — the point at which magma starts to fracture is also the point at which it initiates fluid circulation in the fracture network.

“Fluid flow controls heat transfer in volcanic systems, which can be harnessed for geothermal energy production. So the findings have tremendous applications for both volcanology and geothermal research,” says Dr Jackie Kendrick, a post-doctoral researcher in the group.

 

Journal Reference: Anthony Lamur et al. Disclosing the temperature of columnar jointing in lavas. doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03842-4

Colorado Mudslide seen from outer space

A month ago, on May 25, a large mudslide rushed down a Colorado mountain near the town of Collbran covering an area three miles long and one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide. It claimed the lives of three ranchers, caused a small earthquake and covered an area three miles long and one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide.

You can see the huge extent of the mudslide in the pictures above, which was taken by the Landsat 8 satellite on June 7. The lower image, taken by Landsat 8 on June 20, 2013, shows the slide region before the slide; on average, Colorado experiences thousands of landslides each year, but very few reach this magnitude. This region in particular, the Grand Mesa region of western Colorado, is extremely prone to landslides due to the underlying geology.

What we have there is a heavy layer of basalt ontop of soft claystone that erodes easily. When the water starts to erode the claystone, the basalt above starts to slip, catching more and more mass in its movement; the phenomenon is more prone in the spring, when there is a large quantity of water around from meltoff and increased rainfall.

Image via Baum and Odum, 1996.

The slide contains a pool of water at the top, and a large block of earth towards where the slide originated. Geologists now estimate that pool will hold about 245 acre feet of water before it could reach an outlet and spill over

 

The World’s Deepest Hole Lies Beneath this Rusty Metal Cap – The Kola Superdeep Borehole

Would you believe me if I told you that under this rusty, abandoned metal cap there lies the deepest hole ever dug by mankind? That beneath this metal seal, which measures only 9 inches in diameter, there are 12,262 meters (40,230 ft) of nothingness? You might have your doubts — but hear me out.

A journey to the center of the Earth

During the Cold War, the race for space took all the headlines, but the digging race was equally competitive (digging boreholes, that is). This is the Kola Superdeep Borehole – a project funded by the USSR and then Russia between 1970 and 1994. In that period, geologists and geophysicists had only indirect evidence as to what was going on in the Earth’s crust, and superdeep boreholes provided much-needed information for a better understanding of the underlying geology by utilizing direct observation. Even to this day, information gathered by this project is still being analyzed and interpreted.

Granites… granites everywhere

The first surprise they encountered was the lack of the so-called “basaltic layer” at about 7 km deep. Previously, the best geological information about the deeper parts of the crust came from analyzing seismic waves, and the waves suggested a discontinuity — basically, they were expecting to find granites, and as they went deeper, basalts. But much to everybody’s surprise, when they went deeper, they actually found… more granites. As it turns out, the seismic discontinuity was caused by the metamorphosis of the granites, not by basalts.

Water?!

A photograph depicting the operation of the drilling — not the best quality, but you get the picture.

As if that wasn’t enough, between 3 and 6 km deep, they also found water. By the knowledge we had back then, water simply shouldn’t have existed at those depth – and yet, there it was. Now we understand that even deep granites can get fractured, and those fractures can get filled with water. Technically speaking the water is just hydrgen and oxygem atoms squeezed out by the enormous pressures caused by the depth – and trapped in impermeable “layers” of rock.

Boiling with hydrogen

Researchers also reported the extraction of mud, which was “boiling with hydrogen” – such large quantities of hydrogen at these depths were completely unexpected.

Life — deep inside the Earth?

Without a doubt, the biggest surprise was the discovery of life: microscopic plankton fossils in rocks over two billion years old, found four miles beneath the surface. These “microfossils” represented about 24 ancient species and were encased in organic compounds which somehow survived the extreme pressures and temperatures so far beneath the Earth’s surface. This raised numerous questions about the potential survival of life forms at impressive depths.

Now, research has shown that life can exist even in oceanic crust, and even macroscopic life was found at over 1 km deep, but at the time, finding those fossils came as a shocker.

Abandoned, but not forgotten

Now, the Kola Superdeep Borehole is all but abandoned. At depths in excess of about 10,000 feet, researchers started to notice that the temperature increased faster than expected, and the first problems started to occur.  In 1983, the drill passed 12,000 m (39,000 ft), and drilling was stopped for about a year to “celebrate” the event. I have no idea why they would stop for a year to “celebrate”, but this idle period probably contributed to the breakdown in September 1984: after drilling to 12,066 m (39,587 ft), a 5,000 m (16,000 ft) section of the drill string twisted off and was left in the hole. Drilling was later restarted from 7,000 m (23,000 ft).

The drill bit used in the digging process (one of them). The nearby town of Zapolyarny holds the Kola Core Repository, which displays rock samples obtained during the drilling operation.

However, temperatures continued to grow more than the expected values, and by the time the hole reached its maximum length, the temperature was a whopping 180 °C (356 °F) instead of expected 100 °C (212 °F). The drill bit could no longer work at such temperatures, and drilling was stopped in 1992.

The entire project was closed down in 2005 due to (you’ve guessed it) of lack of funding. All the drilling and research equipment was scrapped and while data produced by the Kola drilling project continues to be analyzed, the site itself has been abandoned since 2008; the hole was welded shut by the metal cap we still see today, as if to seal off any devils or mysteries that might lurk beneath.

You can visit the now-abandoned site but, unfortunately, you won’t be able to peek through the hole that, to this day, is the deepest hole dug below the surface.

 

 

Photographs of (A) Woody's Cove (person, for scale, circled), (B) the approximately 50-meter high headwall of Stubby Canyon, (C) the downstream-most waterfall at Pointed Canyon, (D) fluted and polished notch at the rim of Stubby Canyon, (E) upstream-most waterfall at Pointed Canyon, and (F) upstream-most abandoned channel.

Canyons both on Earth and Mars may have been made by megafloods

  • A huge megaflood may have carved the U-shaped canyons we can now see in Idaho some 46,000 years ago.
  • The similarities suggest that the same phenomenon occurred on Mars as well were similar geological formations were found.

Photographs of (A) Woody's Cove (person, for scale, circled), (B) the approximately 50-meter high headwall of Stubby Canyon, (C) the downstream-most waterfall at Pointed Canyon, (D) fluted and polished notch at the rim of Stubby Canyon, (E) upstream-most waterfall at Pointed Canyon, and (F) upstream-most abandoned channel.

Photographs of (A) Woody’s Cove (person, for scale, circled), (B) the approximately 50-meter high headwall of Stubby Canyon, (C) the downstream-most waterfall at Pointed Canyon, (D) fluted and polished notch at the rim of Stubby Canyon, (E) upstream-most waterfall at Pointed Canyon, and (F) upstream-most abandoned channel.

After studying several U-shaped canyons in south-central Idaho, US, geologists at Caltech propose that these characteristic formations were made by megafloods some millions of years ago. Interestingly enough, these features are very akin to some canyons observed on Mars via satellite, suggesting that these too may have been formed by huge floods.

Canyons sparked by a dramatic event

The amphitheater-headed canyons of Malad Gorge State Park, Idaho  are sculpted in a flat plain made from basalt – a volcanic rock. Two canyons in particular, Woody’s Cove and Stubby Canyon, are characterized by tall vertical headwalls, roughly 150 feet high, that curve around to form an amphitheater. These geological structures were formed as lava hardened in several layers. As the lava cooled and contracted, vertical cracks emerged across the entire layer of lava-turned-basalt. As each additional sheet of lava covered the same land, it too cooled and cracked vertically, leaving a wall that, when exposed, looks like stacks of tall blocks, slightly offset from one another with each additional layer. This type of structure is called columnar basalt.

Two canyons in Malad Gorge, Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon, are characterised by tall vertical headwalls, roughly 150 feet high that curve around to form an amphitheatre.

Two canyons in Malad Gorge, Woody’s Cove and Stubby Canyon, are characterised by tall vertical headwalls, roughly 150 feet high that curve around to form an amphitheatre.

The columnar basalt formation theory is well understood – no debate here. What’s controversial is how canyons like Woody’s Cove and Stubby Canyon got their curved shape. One widely accepted theory says that “groundwater sapping,” a process in which springs at the bottom of the canyon gradually carve tunnels at the base of the rock  collapsing the basalt columns, explains the formations.

The theory didn’t convince the Caltech researchers, though. Their objection is based on two grounds: there is no evidence of undercutting in these particular canyon formations and, second, undercutting should leave large boulders in place at the foot of the canyon.

“These blocks are too big to move by spring flow, and there’s not enough time for the groundwater to have dissolved them away,” Caltech professor of geology Michael P. Lamb explains, “which means that large floods are needed to move them out. To make a canyon, you have to erode the canyon headwall, and you also have to evacuate the material that collapses in.”

Back through time

After studying rock samples at the location, the Caltech geologists reason that the only viable explanation is that these canyons were sculpted following waterfall erosion during a large flood event. There’s no flowing water in the vicinity of Woody’s Cove and Stubby Canyon today, however during a different time there could have.  A flood of this magnitude could also carry boulders downstream, leaving behind the amphitheater canyons we see today without massive boulder piles at their bottoms and with no existing watercourses.

Additionally, the researchers found scour marks on surface rocks on the plateau above the canyons, clear evidence that these rocks were subjected to water discharge containing sediment.

Taken together, the evidence from Malad Gorge, Lamb says, suggests that “amphitheater shapes might be diagnostic of very large-scale floods, which would imply much larger water discharges and much shorter flow durations than predicted by the previous groundwater theory.” Lamb points out that although groundwater sapping “is often assumed to explain the origin of amphitheater-headed canyons, there is no place on Earth where it has been demonstrated to work in columnar basalt.”

U-shaped canyons, such as those in Idaho's Malad Gorge State Park, are relatively rare on Earth but common on the Martian surface.

U-shaped canyons, such as those in Idaho’s Malad Gorge State Park, are relatively rare on Earth but common on the Martian surface.

When did this supposed flood event occurred, though? The key came following surface rock dating, which was made using a very fascinating technique. As cosmic rays hit the earth’s surface, these interacts with rocks producing alternate versions of noble gas elements, or isotopes, called cosmogenic nuclides. By measuring the accumulation of nuclides in a certain mineral, while taking into account the cosmic ray flux, the scientists were able to determine the time that rocks has been sitting at Earth’s surface.

Moving to another planet

Apparently, rock samples from the heads of Woody’s Cove and Stubby Canyon had been exposed for the same length of time, approximately 46,000 years  suggesting this is when the flood occurred. The implications of the U-shaped canyons may stretch far beyond our planet, however.

“A very popular interpretation for the amphitheater-headed canyons on Mars is that groundwater seeps out of cracks at the base of the canyon headwalls and that no water ever went over the top,” Lamb says.

Judging from the evidence in Idaho, however, it seems more likely that on Mars, as on Earth, amphitheater-headed canyons were created by enormous flood events, suggesting that Mars was once a very watery planet.  The researchers are now developing models simulating canyon formation by megafloods.

‘We intend to test the model against our data at Malad Gorge and to apply it to specific examples on Mars,’ Professor Lamb said.

‘Using Earth as our guide, the early history of Mars surface environments, including the amounts and duration of flowing surface water, is waiting to be discovered through careful analysis of the landforms and sedimentary deposits on the red planet.’

 

Evidence of granite found on Mars – Red Planet geology more complex than previously thought

Geologists have now found the most compelling evidence of granites on Mars – something which prompts more complex theories about the geology and tectonic activity on the Red Planet.

Granites and basalts

Basalt and Granite. Credits: Rice University.

Granites are igneous rocks, pretty common on the surface of Earth. It is often called a ‘felsic’ (white rock) – because it is very rich in so-called white minerals, such as quartz or feldspar. It is contrasted with mafic rocks (for example basalt), which are relatively richer in magnesium and iron. Now, large amounts of feldspar have been found in a Martian volcano. Interestingly enough, minerals commonly found in basalts are completely absent from that area; considering how basalts are almost ubiquitous on Mars, this initially came as a shock, but now, geologists have come up with a theory to explain this.

Granite, or its eruptive equivalent, rhyolite, is often found on Earth in tectonically active regions such as subduction zones. However, since Mars isn’t tectonically active, there are no subduction zones there, so there has to be a different cause. The team studying the case concluded that prolonged magmatic activity on Mars can also produce these granitic compositions on very large scales.

“We’re providing the most compelling evidence to date that Mars has granitic rocks,” said James Wray, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the study’s lead author.

Red Planet geology

A 'spectral window' into the Martian geology - bright magenta outcrops have a distinctive feldspar-rich composition. (Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS)

A ‘spectral window’ into the Martian geology – bright magenta outcrops have a distinctive feldspar-rich composition. (Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS)

For many years, the geology of Mars has been considered to be very simplistic, consisting of mostly one single type of rock: basalt – a common extrusive igneous (volcanic) rock formed from the rapid cooling of basaltic lava exposed at or very near the surface. The dark rock can also be found on Earth in many volcanically active areas, such as Hawaii or Iceland for example.

But earlier this year, the Mars Curiosity started to cast some doubt on those beliefs, when it reported finding soils with a composition similar to granite. No one really knew what to make of this discovery, but since it appeared to be very localized, it was just considered a local anomaly. However, this new research analyzed things at a much larger scale, using remote sensing techniques with infrared spectroscopy to survey a large volcano on Mars that was active for billions of years. The volcano is perfect for this type of study, because it is dust free (a true rarity on Mars) – some of the fastest-moving sand dunes on Mars sweep away any would-be dust particles on this volcano.

Much to the delight of researchers, the limitations of the remote sensing technology were an advantage in this case:

“Using the kind of infrared spectroscopic technique we were using, you shouldn’t really be able to detect feldspar minerals, unless there’s really, really a lot of feldspar and very little of the dark minerals that you get in basalt,” Wray said.

Separating the white and the black

So we have an island of white feldspar amidst an ocean of black basalt – how did it form?

When you have magma in the subsurface, it cools off very, very slowly. In a tectonically inactive planet like Mars, this process can be very stable. While the magma slowly cools off, low density melt separates from high density crystals, and if the conditions are just right, this process can take place for billions of years, leading to the creation of granitic rocks, as computer simulations showed.

“We think some of the volcanoes on Mars were sporadically active for billions of years,” Wray said. “It seems plausible that in a volcano you could get enough iterations of that reprocessing that you could form something like granite.”

While we are trying to figure out the existence (or lack of it) of life on Mars, this is another wake-up call, showing just how little we understand about the geologic processes on the Red Planet – which ultimately govern the appearance of life. Anyway, the geology of Mars just got a lot more interesting.

Journal Reference:

  1. James J. Wray, Sarah T. Hansen, Josef Dufek, Gregg A. Swayze, Scott L. Murchie, Frank P. Seelos, John R. Skok, Rossman P. Irwin, Mark S. Ghiorso. Prolonged magmatic activity on Mars inferred from the detection of felsic rocksNature Geoscience, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1994

Curiosity finds water on Mars

After finding no methane in the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity has shown that the soil and dust on the surface of the Red Planet contain a few percent water, judging by weight. Yes, yes, I know, Curiosity has found signs that water flowed on Mars sometime during its past (1, 2, 3), but this time, it has found actual, direct evidence of water.

Water on Mars

curiosity-rocknest-closeup

The rover found that judging by weight, the surface of Mars contains some 2 percent water – this could mean that future, pioneer astronauts could extract 1 liter of water from 0.05 cubic meters. The sample Curiosity analyzed also revealed significant carbon dioxide and sulphur compounds.

“One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Laurie Leshin, lead author of one paper and dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.”

The results were part of a five-paper special edition on the Curiosity mission and were published today in Science. They don’t mention this, but some of you might find interesting to know that most of this water is probably frozen; in its warmest areas, Mars is about as cold as Alaska, and in its coldest areas, it’s like anything else on Earth.

The technical achievement in itself is huge. Curiosity is the first man-made equipment on Mars which can gather and process samples of soil. In order to do this, the rover employs the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, which includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer and a tunable laser spectrometer. These tools are able to identify a wide range of chemical compounds and also determine the ratios of different isotopes.

curiosity 2

“This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments,” said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.”

Bad news for manned missions

SAM also detected some organic materials in the rock sample as well – carbon containing chemicals that are the building blocks of life on Earth; but don’t get your hopes up – these are simple, chlorinated organics that likely have nothing to do with Martian life. As a matter of fact, they are probably the result of forms of life which came from Earth and reacted with a toxic chemical called perchlorate. NASA’s Phoenix lander spotted perchlorate near the North Pole, and now Curiosity spotted it near the equator, so the substance is probably spread evenly across the planet. The presence of this chemical is an obstacle future missions will have to overcome.

“Perchlorate is not good for people. We have to figure out, if humans are going to come into contact with the soil, how to deal with that,” she said. “That’s the reason we send robotic explorers before we send humans — to try to really understand both the opportunities and the good stuff, and the challenges we need to work through,” Leshin added.

A very Earth-like igneous rock

igneous rock

Curiosity is more than a one-trick pony – it’s not only about analyzing the possibility of life on Mars, it’s also about understanding the geologic setting of the planet. Another one of the five papers detailed a rock found in October 2012 – an igneous type of rock, which was never before seen on Mars, but is rather common on Earth, on oceanic islands or where the crust is thinning out.

“Of all the Martian rocks, this one is the most Earth-like. It’s kind of amazing,” said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “What it indicates is that the planet is more evolved than we thought it was, more differentiated.”

Chemical tests conducted on the pyramid rock showed that it is highly enriched in sodium and potassium, making it chemically alkaline. Geologists are now fairly certain this is a type of basalt called mugearite. However, despite the massive implications this rock can carry, researchers don’t want to get carried away, as this is only one sample and may be an exception; still, if it isn’t, than this would put the entire Gale Crater in a new perspective, and would indicate that the inside processes and chemistry of Mars are far more similar to Earth than what was previously believed.

GeoPicture(s) of the week: Columnar basalt

This week, there’s not going to be a picture, but rather a series of picture, because you just can’t sum up the beauty of columnar basalts in a single picture.

Photo by Eric T Gunther.

Basalt is one of the more common extrusive igneous (volcanic) rocks. But how can these hexagonal columns take form? There’s no photoshop, no cutting, so how are these formed? The key here is contractional fractures; during the cooling of a thick lava flow, these contractional fractures appear. The faster the flow cools, the more contractional forces build up.

Photo by Frequenttraveller

While a flow can shrink in the vertical dimension without fracturing, it can’t easily accommodate shrinking in the horizontal direction unless cracks form; the extensive fracture network that develops results in the formation of columns. These columns are predominantly hexagonal in cross-section. The size of the columns loosely depends on the rate of cooling; very rapid cooling may result in very small (<1 cm diameter) columns, while slower cooling leads to bigger columns.

NASA’s Curiosity to scoop first sample

The Curiosity rover is preparing to scoop in the Martian soil for the first time. The vehicle has driven up to a pile of sandy material that mission scientists have dubbed “Rocknest”.

Using its clam-shaped tool, Curiosity will start digging in the ground, the first thing to do being to eliminate any previous earthly contamination. Given that Curiosity’s main objective is to search for Martian life, any such contamination would be pretty bad news. After this task is done, the rover will dig once again, this time for investigating – it will extract an aspirin size sample and analyze it.

NASA engineers explained that this process is long and must be done with care; they also asked for a little patience, in order to best learn how to handle the Rover in Martian conditions. Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will likely stay at Rocknest for a couple of weeks. Much like with previous other tests since the landing, the results are expected to be pretty mundane. Researchers believe the dust is only weathered basalt, a volcanic rock practically ubiquitos on Mars, rather common on Earth as well.

However, the team is more interested in getting the procedures right and making sure any further experiments will be held correctly. The main idea is to clean the internal mechanisms of the robotic arm tool that does the digging, called Chimra (Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis). Although the rover was assembled in ultra-sterile conditions on Earth, the tool still has an oily film of earthly matter which will dramatically contaminate the samples if left in place. However, Curiosity can simply scrub this film from Chimra.

“We effectively use it to rinse our mouth three times and then spit out,” explained Daniel Limonadi, the Curiosity surface sampling phase lead at the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “We will take a scoop bite, we will vibrate that sand on all the different surfaces inside Chimra to effectively sand blast those surfaces, and then we dump all that material out; and we rinse and repeat three times to finish cleaning everything out.”

After this is done, a sample will be collected and delivered to the onboard labs, Sam and CheMin, to run chemical and mineralogical analyses.