Science can be a long game, especially when dealing with space science. Distances are astronomical, and scales are measured in millions and billions. And while Mars isn’t far away, astronomically speaking, researchers have had to do a lot of waiting – waiting for missions to be designed, approved, launched, and arrive at the red planet. Add in the slow speed rovers travel, and that object you’ve wanted to study may leave you waiting for over a decade.
Such is the case with Curiosity and a sulfate-bearing rock unit first seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter back before Curiosity landed in 2012. Earlier this month, the rover made it to the unit after carefully working its way through a sandy pass, and the science team was thrilled as the images came in. Science operations coordinator Elena Amador-French enthused: We would get new images every morning and just be in awe. The sand ridges were gorgeous. You see perfect little rover tracks on them. And the cliffs were beautiful – we got close to the walls.
Curiosity sent back images that revealed diverse rock types and signs of past water, including what appear to be salty minerals such as magnesium sulfate (think Epsom salt), gypsum, and sodium chloride. Yes, that’s right. Table salt on Mars. And so on October 3, Curiosity drilled its 36th sample, after the science team chose a rock nicknamed “Canaima”.
Unfortunately, the sample has yet to be analyzed using the onboard CheMin and SAM instruments, but we’ll update you once NASA releases those results.
NASA JPL press release