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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Assistant prof. published for Mars discoveries

Melissa Rice, assistant professor of planetary sciences, was one of 47 scientists who contributed research published on the findings of the NASA Curiosity rover on Mars. Rice's geologic research helps to show a story of a much warmer and wetter ancient planet, she said. // Photo Ian Koppe
Melissa Rice, assistant professor of planetary sciences, was one of 47 scientists who contributed research published on the findings of the NASA Curiosity rover on Mars. Rice’s geologic research helps to show a story of a much warmer and wetter ancient planet, she said. // Photo by Ian Koppe

Recent findings of the Curiosity rover on Mars were published in Science Magazine this month, along with the geologic research of Assistant Professor of Planetary Sciences Melissa Rice.

The Mars Science Laboratory, a project funded by NASA, sent the Curiosity Rover to determine if Mars had an environment able to support life in the form of microbes at any point during its history, according to NASA’s website.

Rice is a collaborator on the Mastcam team, which controls the camera located on Curiosity’s mast, and is one of the long-term planners of research being carried out by Curiosity, she said.

“Curiosity [has and] is continuing to find evidence of an early version of Mars that was habitable and had the conditions we need to sustain life,” Rice said.

The conclusion they came to is that the rocks were formed in a delta, an environment where a flowing body of water, such as a river, meets a standing body, such as a lake, Rice said.

Rice used the data from the “orbiters,” cameras that are in orbit around Mars, to map out the extent of the rocks that Curiosity is studying on the ground, she said.

The research shows rocks in Gale Crater on Mars were deposited in a large lake system. This interpretation is based on images of sedimentary rocks Curiosity sent back while driving around for the past couple of years, Rice said.

This discovery and what the paper outlines is hard evidence that Mars was a much warmer and wetter environment several billions of years in its past, Rice said.

“We’ve known that for a while, but every new discovery brings a bit more detail into exactly what this early Mars environment was like,” Rice said.

Department of Earth and Planetary Science Chair at University of California, Davis Dawn Sumner has been a long-term planner on the Curiosity team.

“This paper in particular is important because it shows that the conditions that could have supported life on Mars persisted for millions of years,” Sumner said.

Marisa Palucis, a researcher at California Institute of Technology and Mars Science Laboratory scientist, explained in the paper where the sediment found in the delta may have come from, she said.

“I think a lot of us were worried that people might fight this interpretation more because it’s a big deal,” Palucis said. “It’s exciting and it’s starting to say that all of the things geologists have been saying about Mars for so long are probably true.”

The Curiosity team was also concerned with the contrasting opinions of climatologists and geologists about Mars’ global environment, Palucis said.

Geologists say that there has to have been water in the form of lakes to develop the rocks that are being found in the delta and the climate-modeling has a hard time of reproducing that, she said.
“The modeling and theoretical side has a hard time getting their predictions to match up with what we see as geologists,” Palucis said.

Curiosity will continue to drive toward Mount Sharp, the mountain located in the center of Gale Crater, over the next couple of years, Rice said.

Rice believes the best discoveries from Curiosity are yet to come, she said.

“We are starting at about 3.5 billion to 4 billion years ago,” Rice said. “Over the next few years we will be driving through Martian history and we will get to see how Mars’ environment changed.”

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