Mars Rover Curiosity's Littering Leads To Discovery Of New Unknown Particles

By Ian Kar on October 17, 2012 1:14 PM EDT

Plastic
Here's a picture of the plastic from the Curiosity rover. (Photo: NASA)

The Curiosity Rover in Mars has found some mysterious particles on the surface of the planet.

According to some news outlets, Curiosity, the rover that is on the surface of Mars, has found some new particles that are of a Martian origin. Initially, it looked like the Curiosity rover was literally on Mars, as you can see from the picture above, it seems like that the rover accidentally dropped a piece of a plastic wrapper on the red planet's surface. However, when scientists analyzed the piece of plastic, they noticed a few bright specs in the ground. While they initially thought it was more litter from the rover, now, scientists think that it is actually an unknown particle with a Martian origin.

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The process the Curiosity uses to analyze soil samples is pretty basic; scoop up some soil, vigorously shake it, and then dump it out. This is done to ensure that no Earth materials accidentally snuck their way into the system. Initially, when the particles appeared, scientists were afraid that the rover was picking up its own waste, however, it seems that the particles are Martian, not from Earth. "Images show light-toned particles embedded in clumps of excavated soil, implying that they couldn't have been shed by the rover."

Spirit, Curosity's predecessor who came to Mars years before, found proof of water before. Similar to the way the Curiosity's recent discovery was kind of an accident, Spirit's discovery was the same. "In 2007, Curiosity's older cousin Spirit lost the use of one of its wheels and was forced to drag it across the Martian terrain. This scraped away a layer of soil, and when Spirit looked back, images showed the dead wheel had exposed a swath of bright material."

The discovery of silica in the Martian soil indicates that there might have been water previously on Mars as well. According to New Scientist, there are only two ways that a silica-rich soil develops, and both need a strong presence of water: "Water heated by subsurface volcanic activity, with lots of silica dissolved in it, could have percolated up into the soil, and then as it evaporated left the silica behind. Or hot, highly acidic steam from a volcanic eruption - essentially concentrated sulfuric acid - could have rained down on soil that contained a variety of minerals, and leached away everything except the silica... 'Both of these involve substantial interactions of water with hot volcanic material,' Squyres said."

What's the significance of the Curiosity rover finding this mysterious particle? It's hard to tell, but it's definitely an accomplishment. More tests are needed, and NASA is preparing to take a third soil test to see what exactly these mysterious particles are.

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