The Curiosity rover has undertaken its first detailed X-ray analysis of Martian sand, in order to work out what kinds of minerals it contains and how its soils first came into being.
On the run-up to Curiosity’s launch, scientists shrank down the X-ray equipment needed to analyse soil samples — which normally takes up the same space a domestic refrigerator. NASA engineers, however, clever things that they are, managed to squeeze the technology down in to the size of a shoebox, meaning that samples could be analysed on the planet for the first time.
The device, called CheMin, takes a sample of sand — about the size of a pill — and shakes it 2,=000 times a second, all the while bombarding it with X-rays. The rays then penetrate the grains, and the way in which they diffract the radiation can tell scientists about their constituent atoms.
Working on samples taken from Mars’s Rocknest region, Curiosity has discovered that the soils in the area are extremely similar to those found around the Mauna Kea shield volcano in Hawaii back here on Earth. In fact, it’s identified crystalline feldspar, pyroxenes and olivine — all of which are found on Earth. Not massively surprising, but interesting nonetheless. Now come on, Curiosity, no time to waste: back to work. [NASA via WIRED]