Curiosity Finds Ancient Mars Likely Had More Oxygen and Was More Hospitable to Life

This scene shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana," where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This scene shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a location called “Windjana,” where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

New chemical science findings from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity indicate that ancient Mars likely had a higher abundance of molecular oxygen in its atmosphere compared to the present day and was thus more hospitable to life forms, if they ever existed.

Thus the Red Planet was much more Earth-like and potentially habitable billions of years ago compared to the cold, barren place we see today.

Curiosity discovered high levels of manganese oxide minerals in rocks investigated at a location called “Windjana” during the spring of 2014.

Manganese-oxide minerals require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form.

“Researchers found high levels of manganese oxides by using a laser-firing instrument on the rover. This hint of more oxygen in Mars’ early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings — such as evidence about ancient lakes — revealing how Earth-like our neighboring planet once was,” NASA reported.

The newly announced results stem from results obtained from the rovers mast mounted ChemCam or Chemistry and Camera laser firing instrument. ChemCam operates by firing laser pulses and then observes the spectrum of resulting flashes of plasma to assess targets’ chemical makeup.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in a statement.

“Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

The discovery is being published in a new paper in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters. Lanza is the lead author.

The manganese oxides were found by ChemCam in mineral veins investigated at “Windjana” and are part of geologic timeline being assembled from Curiosity’s research expedition across of the floor of the Gale Crater landing site.

Scientists have been able to link the new finding of a higher oxygen level to a time when groundwater was present inside Gale Crater.

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions,” says Lanza.

“Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

The high-manganese materials were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in the “Kimberley” region of the crater.

Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo.  Featured on APOD - Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014
Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo. Featured on APOD – Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014

High concentrations of manganese oxide minerals in Earth’s ancient past correspond to a major shift in our atmosphere’s composition from low to high oxygen atmospheric concentrations. Thus its reasonable to suggest the same thing happened on ancient Mars.

As part of the investigation, Curiosity also conducted a drill campaign at Windjana, her 3rd of the mission.

Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs.  The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs. The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

How much manganese oxide was detected and what is the meaning?

“The Curiosity rover observed high-Mn abundances (>25 wt% MnO) in fracture-filling materials that crosscut sandstones in the Kimberley region of Gale crater, Mars,” according to the AGU paper.

“On Earth, environments that concentrate Mn and deposit Mn minerals require water and highly oxidizing conditions, hence these findings suggest that similar processes occurred on Mars.”

“Based on the strong association between Mn-oxide deposition and evolving atmospheric dioxygen levels on Earth, the presence of these Mn-phases on Mars suggests that there was more abundant molecular oxygen within the atmosphere and some groundwaters of ancient Mars than in the present day.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Drills Deep into 3rd Martian Rock for Sampling Analysis

Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs. The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
See additional Curiosity mosaics below-See our APOD featured on May 7, 2014[/caption]

After a rather satisfying test bore into a sandstone slab at “Kimberley” just last week, NASA’s rover Curiosity decided to go all the way for a deep drill excursion into the Red Planet rock target called “Windjana” and successfully collected powdery samples from the interior on Monday evening, May 5, Sol 621, that the rover will soon consume inside her belly for high tech compositional analysis with her state-of-the-art science instruments.

NASA reported the great news today, Tuesday, May 6, soon after receiving confirmation of the successful acquisition effort by the hammering drill, located at the terminus of the 1 ton robots 7-foot-long (2 meter) arm.

At long last its “Drill, Baby, Drill” time on Mars.

The “Kimberley Waypoint” drill campaign into “Windjana” at the Mount Remarkable butte thus marks only the third Martian rock bored for sampling analysis by the SUV sized rover. This also counts as a new type of Mars rock – identified as sandstone, compared to the pair of mudstone rocks bored into last year.

This May 5, 2014, image (Sol 621) from the Navigation Camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows two holes at top center drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana." The farther hole was created by the rover's drill while it collected rock-powder sample material from the interior of the rock that will be fed to the rovers chemistry labs for analysis.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This May 5, 2014, image (Sol 621) from the Navigation Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows two holes at top center drilled into a sandstone target called “Windjana.” The farther hole was created by the rover’s drill while it collected rock-powder sample material from the interior of the rock that will be fed to the rovers chemistry labs for analysis. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The fresh hole in “Windjana” created on Monday night was clearly visible in images received this afternoon and showed it was 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and about 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) deep.

The operation went exactly as planned and left behind a residual pile of drill tailings much darker in color compared to the ubiquitous red color seen covering most of Mars surface.

The new full-depth hole is very close in proximity to the shallower “Mini-drill” test hole operation carried out on April 29 at Windjama to determine if this site met the science requirements for sampling analysis and delivery to the two onboard, miniaturized chemistry labs – SAM and CheMin.

“Windjana” is named after a gorge in Western Australia.

Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover will conduct 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars.  The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover will conduct 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Featured on APOD – Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014

“The drill tailings from this rock are darker-toned and less red than we saw at the two previous drill sites,” said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Tempe, deputy principal investigator for Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam).

“This suggests that the detailed chemical and mineral analysis that will be coming from Curiosity’s other instruments could reveal different materials than we’ve seen before. We can’t wait to find out!”

In coming days, the sample will be pulverized and sieved prior to delivery to the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin) and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM) for chemical and compositional analysis.

Windjana is an outcrop of sandstone located at the base of a Martian butte named Mount Remarkable at “The “Kimberley Waypoint” – a science stopping point reached by the rover in early April 2014 halfway along its epic trek to towering Mount Sharp, the primary destination of the mission.

See herein our illustrative photo mosaics of the Kimberly Waypoint region assembled by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Multisol composite photo mosaic shows deployment of Curiosity’s rovers robotic arm and APXS X-ray spectrometer onto the ‘Winjana’ rock target at Mount Remarkable for evaluation as missions third drill target inside Gale Crater on Mars.  The colorized navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 612, April 26, 2014.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Multisol composite photo mosaic shows deployment of Curiosity’s rovers robotic arm and APXS X-ray spectrometer onto the ‘Winjana’ rock target at Mount Remarkable for evaluation as missions third drill target inside Gale Crater on Mars. The colorized navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 612, April 26, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The first two drill campaigns conducted during 2013 at ‘John Klein’ and ‘Cumberland’ inside Yellowknife Bay were on mudstone rock outcrops.

The science team chose Windjana for drilling “to analyze the cementing material that holds together sand-size grains in this sandstone,” says NASA.

The Kimberley Waypoint was selected because it has interesting, complex stratigraphy,” Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, told me.

Curiosity snaps selfie at Kimberley waypoint with towering Mount Sharp backdrop on April 27, 2014 (Sol 613). Inset shows MAHLI camera image of rovers mini-drill test operation on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615) into “Windjama” rock target at Mount Remarkable butte.  MAHLI color photo mosaic assembled from raw images snapped on Sol 613, April 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Curiosity snaps selfie at Kimberley waypoint with towering Mount Sharp backdrop on April 27, 2014 (Sol 613). Inset shows MAHLI camera image of rovers mini-drill test operation on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615) into “Windjana” rock target at Mount Remarkable butte. MAHLI color photo mosaic assembled from raw images snapped on Sol 613, April 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Curiosity departed the ancient lakebed at the Yellowknife Bay region in July 2013 where she discovered a habitable zone with the key chemical elements and a chemical energy source that could have supported microbial life billions of years ago – and thereby accomplished the primary goal of the mission.

Windjama is about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) southwest of Yellowknife Bay.

Curiosity still has about another 4 kilometers to go to reach the base of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

Martian landscape with rows of curved rock outcrops at ‘Kimberly’ in the foreground and spectacular Mount Sharp on the horizon. NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover pulled into Kimberly waypoint dominated by layered rock outcrops as likely drilling site.  This colorized navcam camera photomosaic was assembled from imagery taken on Sol 576 (Mar. 20, 2014).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Martian landscape with rows of curved rock outcrops at ‘Kimberly’ in the foreground and spectacular Mount Sharp on the horizon. NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover pulled into Kimberly waypoint dominated by layered rock outcrops as likely drilling site. This colorized navcam camera photomosaic was assembled from imagery taken on Sol 576 (Mar. 20, 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

The sedimentary foothills of Mount Sharp, which reaches 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky, is the 1 ton robots ultimate destination inside Gale Crater because it holds caches of water altered minerals. Such minerals could possibly indicate locations that sustained potential Martian life forms, past or present, if they ever existed.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity scans scientifically intriguing rock outcrops of gorgeous Martian terrain at ‘The Kimberley’ waypoint in search of next drilling location beside Mount Remarkable butte, at right.  Mastcam color photo mosaic assembled from raw images snapped on Sol 590, April 4, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Curiosity scans scientifically intriguing rock outcrops of gorgeous Martian terrain at ‘The Kimberley’ waypoint in search of next drilling location beside Mount Remarkable butte, at right. Mastcam color photo mosaic assembled from raw images snapped on Sol 590, April 4, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Curiosity Bores into Kimberley rock after Inspection Unveils Enticing Bumpy Textures

Curiosity snaps selfie at Kimberley waypoint with towering Mount Sharp backdrop on April 27, 2014 (Sol 613). Inset shows MAHLI camera image of rovers mini-drill test operation on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615) into “Windjana” rock target at Mount Remarkable butte. MAHLI color photo mosaic assembled from raw images snapped on Sol 613, April 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
See more Curiosity photo mosaics below[/caption]

Three days ago, the burning question was “To Drill or not to Drill?”

The answer has come Fast and Furious – “Drill, Baby, Drill !”

After spending the weekend inspecting an enticing slab of sandstone rock at “Kimberley”, the team directed NASA’s Curiosity rover to bore a test hole into a Martian rock target called “Windjana” on Tuesday, April 29, Sol 615, that exhibited interesting bumpy textures. See above our illustrative “Kimberley” photo mosaic.

“A decision about full drilling is planned in coming days,” NASA JPL press officer Guy Webster told me today.

Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana”  rock target  on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615).  Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana” rock target on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615). Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Engineers commanded Curiosity to perform the so called “mini-drill” operation at “Windjana”- as the site of the robots third drilling operation since touching down on the Red Planet back in August 2012.

The 1 ton robot drilled a test hole 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and to a depth of about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) using the hammering drill at the terminus of the robotic arm.

Windjana is an outcrop of sandstone located at the base of a Martian butte named Mount Remarkable at “The “Kimberley” waypoint – a science stopping point reached by the rover in early April 2014 along its epic trek to towering Mount Sharp, the primary destination of the mission.

See our photo mosaics illustrating Curiosity’s science activities and drilling operations on “Windjana” and roving around the “Mount Remarkable” butte at “The Kimberley Waypoint” – above and below – by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Multisol composite photo mosaic shows deployment of Curiosity’s rovers robotic arm and APXS X-ray spectrometer onto the ‘Winjana’ rock target at Mount Remarkable for evaluation as missions third drill target inside Gale Crater on Mars.  The colorized navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 612, April 26, 2014.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Multisol composite photo mosaic shows deployment of Curiosity’s rovers robotic arm and APXS X-ray spectrometer onto the ‘Winjana’ rock target at Mount Remarkable for evaluation as missions third drill target inside Gale Crater on Mars. The colorized navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 612, April 26, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The team is evaluating the resulting hole and powdery, gray colored tailings with the arm’s high resolution MAHLI camera and other instruments to determine whether to follow up with a deep drilling operation to a depth of 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters).

To prepare for the “mini drill” operation, Curiosity first brushed the candidate drill site off with the wire-bristle Dust Removal Tool (DRT) this past weekend, to clear away obscuring Red Planet dirt and dust hindering observations with the cameras and spectrometers.

“In the brushed spot, we can see that the rock is fine-grained, its true color is much grayer than the surface dust, and some portions of the rock are harder than others, creating the interesting bumpy textures,” said Curiosity science team member Melissa Rice of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena., in a NASA statement

“All of these traits reinforce our interest in drilling here in order understand the chemistry of the fluids that bound these grains together to form the rock.”

“Windjana,” is named after a gorge in Western Australia.

Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover will conduct 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars.  The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover will conduct 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Why was Kimberley chosen as a science destination ?

“The Kimberley” has interesting, complex stratigraphy,” Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, told me.

If the team decides that Windjana meets the required criteria, Curiosity will bore a full depth hole into the sandstone rock, and then pulverize and filter it prior to delivery to the two onboard miniaturized chemistry labs – SAM and CheMin.

Windjana would be the first sandstone drill target, if selected. The first two drill locations at ‘John Klein’ and ‘Cumberland’ inside Yellowknife Bay were mudstone.

Curiosity departed the ancient lakebed at the Yellowknife Bay region in July 2013 where she discovered a habitable zone with the key chemical elements and a chemical energy source that could have supported microbial life billions of years ago – and thereby accomplished the primary goal of the mission.

Curiosity scans scientifically intriguing rock outcrops of gorgeous Martian terrain at ‘The Kimberley’ waypoint in search of next drilling location beside Mount Remarkable butte, at right.  Mastcam color photo mosaic assembled from raw images snapped on Sol 590, April 4, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Curiosity scans scientifically intriguing rock outcrops of gorgeous Martian terrain at ‘The Kimberley’ waypoint in search of next drilling location beside Mount Remarkable butte, at right. Mastcam color photo mosaic assembled from raw images snapped on Sol 590, April 4, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Mars rover captured this panoramic view of a butte called "Mount Remarkable" and surrounding outcrops at “The Kimberley " waypoint on April 11, 2014, Sol 597. Colorized navcam photomosaic was stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Curiosity Mars rover captured this panoramic view of a butte called “Mount Remarkable” and surrounding outcrops at “The Kimberley ” waypoint on April 11, 2014, Sol 597. Colorized navcam photomosaic was stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com