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“NASA rover findings point to a more Earth-like martian past”, 2016, Astronomy Magazine. Web.
Section A: Research Summary
Our team of scientists from the Mars Curiosity Mission has recently made an important discovery. Using the ChemCam, a laser-firing instrument mounted on the Curiosity rover we were able to find high amounts of manganese oxides in the Martian soil. This finding suggests that at some point in the past, Mars had noticeable levels of oxygen in its atmosphere. We were also able to date the geological samples on which the analysis was performed to the period when Mars was likely to have large amounts of water.
This means that at some point in the past, our neighboring planet had conditions very similar to those of the Earth. In addition, the discovery allows us to make several suggestions regarding the process of formation of high amounts of oxygen, which differs significantly from our previous views and will possibly increase our knowledge in several fields.
Section B: Research Method
The readings were obtained using the instrument known as ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera). The tool consists of a powerful laser, camera, and a spectrograph – a device capable of analyzing the spectrum of the received light. The rover uses the laser to heat the small area (smaller than 1 millimeter) to heat the rock or soil to the temperature when it vaporizes. The vaporized particles form plasma – extremely hot gas which glows in a different color depending on the chemical composition of the material. The camera then captures the detailed image of the spectrum and transfers it via the fiber-optic link to the onboard spectrograph.
The spectrograph consists of three adjacent components, each capable of working with a certain wavelength (NASA par. 3). As each chemical component produces its unique spectral “signature,” the device is able to determine the exact composition and amount of the rock or dust. The process does not require a direct contact with a rock, as the camera’s resolution allows to correctly capture the image from seven meters. The use of ChemCam also eliminates the necessity of complex mechanical operation needed to collect samples and conduct a lengthy chemical analysis. The efficiency and precision of the process allow Curiosity to make up to ten reliable measurements per day.
Section C: Research Results
The readings obtained from the spectrograph suggest the high amounts of manganese oxide minerals. The process of oxidization requires the presence of oxygen, and the formation of manganese oxides demands its presence on sufficient level.. According to Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist of Los Alamos National Laboratory, “The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes.” (Jet Propulsion Laboratory par. 5) While the supposed presence of microorganisms on Mars would be an astonishing discovery, the current body of evidence does not support it. On the other hand, the high-oxygen atmosphere is a possibility and is consistent with other Curiosity Mission findings.
First, the samples are collected in the Kimberly region of the Gale crater, which might have had water at some point in the past. In addition, the age of the samples coincides with the date where the water was present on the planet, according to the current understanding. We already know that on Earth the manganese oxides formed when the abundance of water was coupled with the rising levels of oxygen. This means that similar conditions occurred on Mars in the ancient period of planetary history. According to Lanza, one possible way for the oxygen to appear on Mars in the required amount is through the process of water breakdown (Jet Propulsion Laboratory par. 8).
As the planet was not protected by the strong magnetic field, the ionizing radiation began breaking down the molecules of water into atoms of oxygen and hydrogen. The planet’s gravity was not strong enough to hold the lighter hydrogen atoms, so over time oxygen began building up. The red iron oxide dust that is responsible for the color of the planet further confirms the suggested course of events. However, while the oxidization of iron requires small amounts of oxygen that can form in other ways, the newly found manganese oxides require new explanation.
Section D: Funding Justification
Our discovery has several important implications. First, the fact that conditions on Mars were similar to those on Earth opens up unprecedented opportunities for further research. While in the current state it cannot be colonized or used for valuable resources, Mars can provide us with precious information regarding the alternative course of events for the Earth-like world. Additionally, if the hypothesis suggested by Lanza is correct, it will expand our understanding of the biosignature, one of the criteria currently used in the search for Earth-like exoplanets (Misra, Meadows, Claire, and Crisp 67).
Finally, in case the hypothesis proves to be incorrect, one of the possible alternatives is even more astounding. If the red planet did indeed have bacterial life responsible for the manganese oxide formation, the possibilities of subsequent scientific progress are immeasurable – not only in such fields as evolutionary biology but also genetics and medicine, among others. This could truly be the beginning of a new age for humankind.
However, the planetary exploration is costly. Besides, the current evidence in support of our theory is fairly limited. With additional funding from your organization, we could widen the scope of the Curiosity Mission to confirm our analysis and deepen the understanding of the issue. Additionally, new fields need to be tackled in Mars exploration, such as biological analysis, which would greatly increase our chances of important discoveries.
Works Cited (Optional)
Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA rover findings point to a more Earth-like martian past. 2016. Web.
Misra, Amit, Victoria Meadows, Mark Claire, and Dave Crisp. “Using dimers to measure biosignatures and atmospheric pressure for terrestrial exoplanets.” Astrobiology 14.2 (2014): 67-86.
NASA. Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam). n.d. Web.