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Unusual Mars Rock Surprises Rover Scientists

This image shows where NASA's Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as "Jake Matijevic." (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
This image shows where NASA's Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as "Jake Matijevic." (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Rosanne Skirble
The Mars rover Curiosity, now 63 days into its two-year exploration of the red planet, has analyzed a football-sized rock that NASA scientists say has some surprisingly Earth-like qualities.

Curiosity's engineers on Earth put the drilling and sampling tools on the rover's robotic arm to full use this week as they assessed the makeup of the pyramid-shaped rock. The sample is named Jake Matijevic, in honor of a senior engineer on the Curiosity team who passed away this summer.  Co-investigator Edward Stolper of the California Institute of Technology says the football-size rock is similar to a kind of igneous, or volcanic rock found on Earth.

"The composition of Jake Matijevic is a very close match to highly crystalized or fractionated magmas that occur on particular places on earth," said Stolper.

Stolper says it is difficult to conclude from this one rock whether it formed the same way such rocks formed on Earth. But he says further studies could answer that question.  

Scientists were pleased with the data they gathered from two new instruments on Curiosity - the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer and the Chemistry and Camera Instrument, called ChemCam, which shoots rock-busting laser pulses from the top of the rover’s mast.  

  • This image shows the wall of a scuff mark NASA's Curiosity made in a windblown ripple of Martian sand with its wheel.
  • This image shows where NASA's Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as "Jake Matijevic." (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
  • This image shows fine sand from Mars that was filtered by NASA's Curiosity rover as part of its first "decontamination" exercise, October 10, 2012.
  • The image shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater in the distance. The image shown here has been rotated to correct for that tilt, so that the sky is up and the ground is down.
  • The scoop on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the larger soil particles that were too big to filter through a sample-processing sieve that is porous only to particles less than 150 microns across, October 10, 2012.
  • The Mars Curiosity rover's robotic arm takes aim at Mount Sharp in a mosaic that combines navigation-camera imagery from Sols 2, 12 and 14 (Aug. 8, 18 and 20). The shadow of the rover's camera mast is visible in the center foreground.
  • A penny that is used by Curiosity to calibrate its Mars Hand Lens Imager camera. The penny is covered in Martian dust, September 9, 2012.
  • This view of the lower front and underbelly of Curiosity combines nine images taken on September 9, 2012.
  • This photo, taken by the Curiosity rover, shows the layered geology of Mars.
  • This view of three of Curiosity's wheels combines two images taken on September 9, 2012.

NASA scientists say the information from the two instruments is just a preview of things to come.  The rover also carries tools to gather and analyze soil samples.  Actually, the first samples will be used to clean off a protective film of oil - possibly bearing traces of terrestrial dust -  left on the instruments when they were assembled on Earth.  Chris Roumeliotis,  with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says it's rather like a Martian car-wash.

“The decontamination activity is extremely important because we don’t want our instruments spooked by any terrestrial contamination.  And once we clean everything we will be up and running with full capability," said Roumeliotis.

After the decontamination, the rover will be driven about 90 meters toward another rock in the Gale Crater area that's been selected as the first target for Curiosity's drill.

Over the rover's two-year mission, researchers will be studying whether this region of Mars ever had - or might still have -  conditions that could support life.

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