By Whitney Clavin, Phys.org, July 27, 2015 – Approaching the third anniversary of its landing on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has found a target unlike anything it has studied before—bedrock with surprisingly high levels of silica. Silica is a rock-forming compound containing silicon and oxygen, commonly found on Earth as quartz.
This area lies just downhill from a geological contact zone the rover has been studying near “Marias Pass” on lower Mount Sharp.
In fact, the Curiosity team decided to back up the rover 46 meters (151 feet) from the geological contact zone to investigate the high-silica target dubbed “Elk.” The decision was made after they analyzed data from two instruments, the laser-firing Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN), which show elevated amounts of silicon and hydrogen, respectively. High levels of silica in the rock could indicate ideal conditions for preserving ancient organic material, if present, so the science team wants to take a closer look.
“One never knows what to expect on Mars, but the Elk target was interesting enough to go back and investigate,” said Roger Wiens, the principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. ChemCam is coming up on its 1,000th target, having already fired its laser more than 260,000 times since Curiosity landed on Mars Aug. 6, 2012, Universal Time (evening of Aug. 5, Pacific Time).