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Curiosity rover investigates salty region of Mars for clues of life

When it comes to hunting for evidence of ancient life on Mars, some key features that scientists want to explore are areas with high levels of sulfate minerals. These salts form in the presence of water, so even though Mars is dry today, finding these minerals now indicates that there was once water in the region. And areas of water are places where life is most likely to have developed. So it’s an exciting time when a Mars rover reaches an area high in sulfates, and the Curiosity rover recently arrived at one such location on Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater.

The sulfates had been identified from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter years ago as a key target for Curiosity to explore, and the rover has already identified a variety of rock types and salt minerals in the area including magnesium sulfate, calcium sulfate, and sodium chloride or table salt.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to capture this panorama of a hill nicknamed Bolívar and adjacent sand ridges on Aug. 23, the 3,572nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to capture this panorama of a hill nicknamed Bolívar and adjacent sand ridges on Aug. 23, the 3,572nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

While exploring the area, the Curiosity team chose a rock they named Canaima to collect a sample from, but because of the firmness of the rock, it was a difficult one to approach. The arm which Curiosity uses to move its drill into place has had some issues recently, as the brakes on the arm stopped working and a new set of spare brakes had to be used instead.

“As we do before every drill, we brushed away the dust and then poked the top surface of Canaima with the drill. The lack of scratch marks or indentations was an indication that it may prove difficult to drill,” said Curiosity’s project manager, Kathya Zamora-Garcia, in a statement. “We paused to consider whether that posed any risk to our arm. With the new drilling algorithm, created to minimize the use of percussion, we felt comfortable collecting a sample of Canaima. As it turned out, no percussion was needed.”

With the sample successfully collected, Curiosity can now analyze it using its instruments to learn more about the region and the sulfates it contains.

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