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The search for water on Mars
The search for water on Mars

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4.6 Landing robotic geologists on Mars

In 2003, two robotic geologists were launched towards Mars. Their names: Spirit and Opportunity. The Spirit rover landed on 4 January 2004 in Gusev crater, a site chosen because it may have been a drainage basin or ‘catchment area’. The Opportunity rover landed two weeks later in Meridiani Planum, a large area where clay minerals had been detected from orbit. Carrying the same instruments, the two rovers were tasked with finding out if Mars had ever been habitable, i.e., hunting for evidence of water within the rocks.

This figure is a panoramic photograph taken by the Spirit rover of the martian surface. It is in greyscale. In the foreground is part of the rover’s landing platform. In the background is a dark grey surface with fine grained material and some boulders evident. The horizon is flat and sky is a pale grey colour.
Figure 31 This was the first 360° panorama from the Spirit landing site in Gusev crater, with the rover still on the landing platform. Note how flat and featureless the landscape appears. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
This figure is a photograph taken by the Opportunity rover of the martian surface. It is in shades of orange-brown. In the foreground is part of the rover’s deflated airbags. In the background is a dark brown surface with fine grained material and some boulders evident. In the distance, rock outcrops can be seen. The horizon slopes slightly to the right hand side and the sky is pale orange.
Figure 32 Opportunity at its landing site in a small, ~20 m diameter crater in Meridiani Planum. While it was not planned for Opportunity to land in a crater, the walls around it were the first rocks that the mission encountered. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

The evidence of water that the rovers returned was plentiful but it is impossible to cover everything here. Instead, we can look at the important highlights, starting with…blueberries!

Features called ‘blueberries’ were found by the Opportunity rover. Figure 33 shows that these are not fruit but are, in fact, small, cm-sized, almost perfectly spherical features made mostly of the iron oxide mineral haematite. As you learned earlier, iron oxides are an excellent indicator that water has once been present.

This figure is a photograph taken by the Opportunity rover. It shows small spherical pebbles sitting on a fine grained surface. The pebbles are coloured light blues and greys, and the surface underneath is an orange hue.
Figure 33 Haematite rich concretions named ‘blueberries’ because of their almost perfectly spherical shapes. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

A second highlight came from the discovery of bright white material (Figure 34) at a site named ‘Gertrude Weise’. This material was only uncovered because Spirit’s wheel malfunctioned and the rover dragged it along, creating a trench in the soil. This gave an opportunity for the rover’s instruments to analyse this uncovered material, and it was identified as almost pure silica (SiO2), another product of the interaction of water with rocks.

This figure is a photograph taken by the Spirit rover of the martian surface. The surface is coloured orange, and is fine grained with some larger pebbles. Across the centre of the image are two small valleys in the soil, the interior of which are coloured white.
Figure 34 ‘Gertrude Weise’ is a trench made by the malfunctioning wheel on Spirit. It is almost pure SiO2, a mineral phase likely formed by water. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

A third highlight was the discovery of calcium sulfate dispersed in the soils and in thin veins in rocks (Figure 35). Calcium sulfate can form three different minerals: anhydrite, bassanite and gypsum. These differ from one another depending on the amount of water they contain: anhydrite has no water (as represented by its formula CaSO4), bassanite (CaSO4.0.5H2O), and gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O) have some water, in differing proportions.

This figure is a photograph taken by the Opportunity rover of a rock outcrop. The rock is brown in colour, but a band of white goes across the image from bottom left to top right. The band is broken in places, interrupted by brown.
Figure 35 Vein, called ‘Homestake’, filled with gypsum, which was investigated by Opportunity. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

The Opportunity rover still holds the record for the longest distance travelled on Mars, taking over 11 years to reach Endeavour crater (Figure 35) where clay minerals had been found by orbiting spacecraft. Its reward for driving over 45 km (more than marathon distance) was more exciting findings.

It found clay minerals in a small incision (called ‘Marathon Valley’) in the crater rim, the chemistry of which suggested they had to have formed in the presence of hot water. As mentioned earlier, impact events might heat groundwater, producing hydrothermal systems. The hot water would alter the minerals to secondary minerals, which are then detected by spacecraft. The chemistry of the clay minerals detected (specifically the presence of nickel) suggested that the temperatures had once been very hot, probably several hundred degrees Celsius.

This figure is a panoramic photograph taken by the Opportunity rover of the martian surface. A ridge is evident, lying left to right across the image. This is coloured light orange. Behind this is a darker orange region that appears flat. The horizon in the distance is horizontal and the sky is pale yellow.
Figure 36 ‘Pillinger Point’, named in honour of the Open University’s late Professor Colin Pillinger who led the Beagle 2 mission, is at the rim of Endeavour crater allowing a beautiful view over the crater.

It is important to remember that, although the evidence from Spirit and Opportunity, coupled with the evidence from earlier missions, was categorical about water once being present. However, in the time these spacecraft were operating at Mars, others were being launched with the same broad goals: to find evidence of water. And so the story continues…