Have crystals of ancient lakes on Mars form in which small, weird things?

Dark, rod-shaped features that are about the size of a grain of rice, can be seen clustered on this Martian rock. This is a focus-merged view from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. It covers an area of 2 inches (5 cm).


NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars found in the small, dark bumps on a Mars-ridge similar to that found around the gypsum crystals in the form of drying lakes on Earth, according to a statement from the space agency.

The small flaws are less than a half-inch wide. Some are star shaped, while others are part of more complex V-shaped “swallowtails.” The functions are not the crystals themselves, but may have formed on the crystals, such as plaster over a mold. Researchers think that the features are still other signs that liquid water once flowed on the Red Planet.

“These [types of features can form when salts are concentrated in the water, such as in an evaporating lake,” Sanjeev Gupta, a Curiosity science team member from Imperial College in London, said in a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Gupta previously studied gypsum crystals in the rocks of Scotland. [Photos: Spectacular Mars Views by NASA’s Curiosity rover]

The members of the Curiosity team is considering several possibilities for the functions, which were found in the Gale Crater, a site that has the nickname of the “Jura.” The site is in a larger zone, the so-called “Vera Rubin Ridge.” The team is not sure when the crystal has formed, in comparison with when the sediments around them built up. The crystals may have formed in wet sediment in a drying of the lake or in the water trickling through the sediment underground, after it has hardened in the rocks.

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It is also unclear whether the forms contain the original crystal or mineral that formed them, or when crystals dissolved away and were perhaps replaced by something else.

“Some of the functions in the form of gypsum crystals are darker than the plaster, enriched with iron, or are empty”, the statement said. (The “empty” functions no longer contain the crystals that are formed). These are indications that the original crystallizing material is replaced or removed by the subsequent effects of underground water.”

“So far on this mission, most of the evidence that we have seen over the ancient lakes in Gale Crater is relatively fresh, non-salty water,” Ashwin Vasavada, a Curiosity project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the statement. “If we start seeing the lakes becoming saltier with time, that would help us understand how the environment has changed in the Gale Crater, and it is in accordance with a general pattern that water on Mars was scarce over time.”

What the crystals do arise, team members expressed their surprise in those about them.

“This little ‘V’ shapes really caught our attention, but they were not the reason that we go to that rock,” Abigail Fraeman, a Curiosity science team member at JPL, said in the statement. “We were looking to change the color from one area to the other. We were lucky to have the crystals. They are so small you cannot see them until your right on them.”

A wealth of goals

Vera Rubin Ridge is located on the north slope of the lower Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater. Curiosity landed in the crater in August 2012. It is the way to the top of Mount Sharp in September 2014, the investigations of the layers of the mountain to learn more about how it was formed.

On the ridge, the researchers found many other goals to consider, including the different colors in the rock and mineral veins, and variations in the sedimentary layers, and local rock iron content, according to the statement. Curiosity also spotted some rice-grain-size, which resemble the “sticks,” which attracted the attention if the raw images were posted online. Although some media reported that they looked like fossils, the rover team said that the “sticks” are probably pieces of the same material that makes up the dark mineral veins. [Life on Mars: Exploration & Evidence]

“There’s just a wealth of interesting destinations are concentrated in this area,” Vasavada said. “Each is an idea, and the more clues, the better. It’s going to be fun figuring out what it all means.”

Curiosity began to climb Vera Rubin Ridge about five months ago, and is now uphill on the southern edge. Researchers are looking for functions that can be linked to other transitional areas, further called the “Clay Unit,” because clay features were spotted in the data of a job.

The researchers also noted that changes in the iron level in the ridge of the mineral veins could be important for possible life forms, who may have formerly also called the Red Planet home. Different types of iron oxides differ in how they dissolve in water. If an environment has many different types of iron oxides, which can provide a potential source of energy for life-forms, NASA said.

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