NASA may be ramping up for the launch of its next Mars rover mission later this month, but the Agency's Opportunity rover — which has been chugging around the Martian landscape for close to eight years, now — refuses to recede into obsolescence. You're looking at a close-up of the Martian surface, recently shot by Opportunity's onboard cam, that reveals a line of light-colored rocks known to NASA astronomers as "Homestake" or "The Vein." And they say it's like nothing they've ever seen.
It may not look like much, but scientists speculate that the strange geological feature could actually wind up providing NASA with hard evidence that there are phyllosilicates on the red planet's surface. Why is this a big deal? For one thing, phyllosilicates belong to a class of minerals that form in the presence of a watery environment. But they form in water that is less acidic than the water that is thought to have given rise to the silica-rich clay minerals discovered by NASA's Spirit rover five years ago. Martian soil with lower acidity would, in theory, be more hospitable to life.
Until now, however, we've only identified the presence of phyllosilicates on the Martian surface using images captured from space. To actually discover, identify, and analyze phyllosilicates from the red planet's surface would be an unprecedented achievement.
"This is a real triumph of geology," said Steve Squyres, Mars Exploration Rover principal investigator at Cornell University. Squyres continues:
We saw these veins as we crossed from the Meridiani plains into the Noachian terrain back in August. We've kept those in mind as a very important thing we wanted to look at, but we were so focused on getting into the Noachian and new terrain that we made that the highest priority, figuring that we would get the veins later.
And now that they've gotten around to having a closer look, Squyres and his team are blown away.
"These are different from anything we've ever seen with either rover, a completely new thing on Mars, never seen anywhere," Squyres said. "And we're pretty charged up about it."
Opportunity and its team will continue to investigate the Homestake rock formation and its surroundings in the coming weeks as NASA prepares for the Curiosity rover's upcoming mission to Mars, which is slated to launch on the 25th of this month. Curiosity is set to make landfall in Mars' Gale Crater, a location chosen largely on the fact that satellite imagery suggests the crater is rich with phyllosilicates.
Will the ongoing analyses of the Homestake rock formation by NASA's eight-year-old rover steal Curiosity's phyllosilicate-thunder? Maybe. But personally, I think little Opportunity has earned it.