Why does it seem so many super-rich people want to leave our lovely planet Earth and travel to Mars to live in a colony there? The usual dystopian answer is that they want to escape before one or more human-caused disasters makes our pale blue orb uninhabitable. The egotistical answer is because they can – or at least tghey want the rest of us to think they can. One reason that rarely if ever comes up is greed. Rich people never seem to have enough riches, so they are constantly looking for more. However, the usual space rocks the greedy future space travelers look at are those with minerals to exploit – asteroids like 16 Psyche, 1986 DA and 2016 ED85, which are loaded with iron, nickel and cobalt reserves exceeding all known on Earth. However, there may be minerals of the precious variety on Mars that are attracting the rich. A new report from NASA reveals that the Curiosity rover has discovered an unusual gemstone with unique proerties all over the Gale Crater where it landed in 2012. If you are wondering why we of the general public are only hearing about this now, perhaps it’s time to ask the rich.
“We analyze spatially pervasive, light-toned “halos” associated with fractures in a sedimentary unit (Stimson) of Gale crater, Mars, and report a similar network of halos discovered in a separate geologic group (Bradbury).”
In a new study conducted by a team associated with Arizona State University and published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, space geologists use some very scientific terms to explain that in its over 18 miles of roving around the Gale Crater, Curiosity has seen a lot of light-toned rocks surrounding fractures that crisscross certain parts of the Martian landscape. These so-called “fracture halos” are not just in the general vicinity of Curiosity’s wheels but can be seen far out to the Martian horizon. While interesting, the fracture halos were not interesting enough to spend much time on, and the images of them were filed away for future reference.
“Through a dedicated active neutron measurement campaign, we provide independent confirmation of the water-rich nature of these features.”
Well, the future is here. Former Arizona State University NewSpace Postdoctoral Fellow Travis Gabriel, now a research physicist for the U.S. government, and ASU graduate student and study co-author Sean Czarnecki, joined the Curiosity rover team and explains in an ASU press release that those old images of fracture halos piqued their curiosity. Besides being surprised at their numbers and dense distribution across the Martian landscape, at least in the Gale Crater where Curiosity lives and works, the researchers were stunned to see that the rocks in the fractured halos looked exactly the same – no matter where they were located or when Curiosity photographed them over its 10 years of roaming. Then, one lucky photo revealed a key … Curiosity had run over one of the fractured halos early in its mission on Mars and cracked open some of the rocks. Putting all of that information together allowed Gabriel and Czarnecki to determine what these light-colored rocks are. And what they are changes things for both Martian astronauts and rich Martian colonizers.
“These light-toned rocks were lighting up in our neutron detector, producing anomalously high thermal neutron count rates.”
“Ah ha!” you might say if you were a space geologist. For the rest of us, what got the team excited were readings from multiple instruments on the Curiosity rover. The rover’s DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) spectrometer, a pulsed sealed-tube neutron source and detector used to measure hydrogen or ice and water at or near the Martian surface, showed unusually high counts which means those rock may contain water. They went back and looked at images taken by the laser-induced breakdown spectrometer, Chemistry and Camera, or ChemCam, and those now confirmed that these rocks were composed primarily of water and silica. If you are up on your rocks, you may now have your own “Ah ha!” moment as Travis Gabriel did.
“Our new analysis of archival data showed striking similarity between all of the fracture halos we've observed much later in the mission. Seeing that these fracture networks were so widespread and likely chock-full of opal was incredible.”
Opal is a hydrated amorphous form of silica (SiO2·nH2O) with a water content ranging from 3 to 21% by weight. On Earth, opal is generally found in fissures in limonite, sandstone, rhyolite, marl, and basalt. The name “opal” means “jewel” in Sanskrit, and “to see a change in color” in Greek and both of those describe the better known of the two forms of opal – precious and common. Precious opal has the well known iridescent combination of colors that make it a popular gemstone. As a jewelry stone, opal has a long history, especially with European royalty who exploited the large deposits found in Australia and Ethiopia. - opal is the national gemstone of Australia. It is more likely that the opal on Mars is of the milky-colored common variety – that news is initially disappointing to rich future colonists but big news for astronauts and for rich colonists who might want to exploit this Martian opal for a different reason.
“The discovery of opal is noteworthy as it can form in scenarios where silica is in solution with water, a similar process to dissolving sugar or salt in water. If there is too much salt, or conditions change, it begins to settle at the bottom. On Earth, silica falls out of solution in places like lake and ocean bottoms and can form in hot springs and geysers, somewhat similar to the environments at Yellowstone National Park.”
The last piece of the puzzle is that the opal in these fracture halos is not very old in comparison to the rest of the Gale crater. That means this area – and possibly many others since Curiosity saw fracture halos to the horizon – was a water-rich environment ... possibly one of the last on Mars. It also means the subsurface networks of fractures were formed under more habitable conditions than the modern harsh environment on the Martian surface.
What does all of this mean for future Martian explorers, colonists and super-rich exploiters? We now know that Mars has sources of water beyond its polar areas in locations where scientists haven’t expected to find it. the next step will be to look for opal in other areas of Mars that might have been ignored as possible landing sites for humans because of their dry waterless conditions. atmosphere. If found - and that is now highly likely – this will mean Mars explorers will bring along equipment to mine the opals and extract their water. And it probably means that those looking to exploit the planet for monetary purposes will rush to establish mining companies, water plants and opal shops. Don’t believe it? Look at every discovery of new lands with minerals on Earth.
Congratulations to NASA and the ASU team for this Martian groundbreaking discovery.