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Life on Mars? Mars Rover Opportunity finds some of the necessary conditions once existed

04 May 2012 Universitaet Tübingen

Tübingen Geoscientist Dr. Christian Schröder is part of a team which today revealed exciting new information garnered from information sent back from Mars. Late last year, the NASA Mars Rover Opportunity found what appeared to be veins of gypsum when examining the edge of the crater dubbed “Endeavour.” Gypsum is formed in water at a temperature lower than 60°C. Its presence on Mars indicates that conditions conducive to life have existed there at least temporarily. The rock of the crater edge is similar to suevite, a rock consisting partly of melted material which is typically found at meteor impact sites. The results of the study, led by Steve Squyres at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York have just been published in Science.

Christian Schröder’s research at Tübingen’s Center for Applied Geoscience focuses on the biochemistry of iron minerals. Since the start of the NASA Mars Exploration Rover in 2003, he has been a member of the scientific team responsible for (among other things) the deployment of the Rover’s alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS), which was developed at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and is being further developed under the direction of Ralf Gellert at the University of Guelph in Canada. The APXS analyses elements – making it possible to identify the gypsum vein and the nature of the surrounding rock.

Opportunity has been trundling along the Martian soil for eight years now, and has covered more than 33 km. One of its goals has been the crater Endeavour, which is 22 km across and makes geological layers accessible which are older than the sulfur-rich sandstone surrounding Opportuni-ty’s landing site. Along the way, Schröder helped to examine loose rocks on the surface. Some of them turned out to be meteorites, while others were flung there out of impact craters – although not out of “Endeavour,” according to the APXS analyses.

Gypsum, with the chemical formula CaSO4∙2H2O, only forms in water below 60°C. At a higher tem-perature, other minerals, such as anhydrite, CaSO4, would also be present. That means that condi-tions conducive to life once existed on the edge of the crater. Water circulated through cracks in the rock after the crater was made. Had it been high in sulfur, it would probably have led to the formation of the sulfur-rich sandstone found around the landing site.

The crater is of a similar size and makeup to the edges of the Nördlinger Ries crater in southern Germany, a famous example of a crater made by the impact of a large meteor nearly 15 million years ago. Suevite, one of the impactite category of rocks, is composed of ground and broken rock, silicates made molten by the impact as well as minerals only created at high pressures and temper-atures. Suevite was first identified at the Nördlinger Ries and the name comes from the Latin word for Swabia, the region where it is located in southern Germany. The Mars crater “Endeavour” was formed more than 3.7 billion years ago.

Attached files

  • This color view of a mineral vein comes from the panoramic camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. The vein is about 1.5 cm wide and about 45 cm long. Opportunity examined it in November 2011 and found it to be rich in calcium and sulfur, possibly the calcium-sulfate mineral gypsum. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU)

  • This map shows the 33.5 km route driven by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity from the site of its landing inside Eagle crater at the upper left, to its location more than 91 months later, on the Cape York section of the rim of Endeavour crater. The base image for the map is a mosaic of images taken by the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS).

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