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Martian Geological Mystery

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#1    Waspie_Dwarf

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Posted 14 September 2012 - 09:01 PM

NASA Mars Rover Opportunity Reveals Geological Mystery



www.nasa.gov said:

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Small spherical objects fill the field in this mosaic combining four images from the Microscopic Imager on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ USGS/Modesto Junior   College› Full image and caption  › See image gallery



PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's long-lived rover Opportunity has returned an image of the Martian surface that is puzzling researchers.

Spherical objects concentrated at an outcrop Opportunity reached last week differ in several ways from iron-rich spherules nicknamed "blueberries" the rover found at its landing site in early 2004 and at many other locations to date.

Opportunity is investigating an outcrop called Kirkwood in the Cape York segment of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The spheres measure as much as one-eighth of an inch (3 millimeters) in diameter. The analysis is still preliminary, but it indicates that these spheres do not have the high iron content of Martian blueberries.

"This is one of the most extraordinary pictures from the whole mission," said Opportunity's principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Kirkwood is chock full of a dense accumulation of these small spherical objects. Of course, we immediately thought of the blueberries, but this is something different. We never have seen such a dense accumulation of spherules in a rock outcrop on Mars."

The Martian blueberries found elsewhere by Opportunity are concretions formed by action of mineral-laden water inside rocks, evidence of a wet environment on early Mars. Concretions result when minerals precipitate out of water to become hard masses inside sedimentary rocks. Many of the Kirkwood spheres are broken and eroded by the wind. Where wind has partially etched them away, a concentric structure is evident.

Opportunity used the microscopic imager on its arm to look closely at Kirkwood. Researchers checked the spheres' composition by using an instrument called the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer on Opportunity's arm.

"They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle," Squyres said. "They are different in concentration. They are different in structure. They are different in composition. They are different in distribution. So, we have a wonderful geological puzzle in front of us. We have multiple working hypotheses, and we have no favorite hypothesis at this time. It's going to take a while to work this out, so the thing to do now is keep an open mind and let the rocks do the talking."

Just past Kirkwood lies another science target area for Opportunity. The location is an extensive pale-toned outcrop in an area of Cape York where observations from orbit have detected signs of clay minerals. That may be the rover's next study site after Kirkwood. Four years ago, Opportunity departed Victoria Crater, which it had investigated for two years, to reach different types of geological evidence at the rim of the much larger Endeavour Crater.

The rover's energy levels are favorable for the investigations. Spring equinox comes this month to Mars' southern hemisphere, so the amount of sunshine for solar power will continue increasing for months.

"The rover is in very good health considering its 8-1/2 years of hard work on the surface of Mars," said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Energy production levels are comparable to what they were a full Martian year ago, and we are looking forward to productive spring and summer seasons of exploration."

NASA launched the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity in the summer of 2003, and both completed their three-month prime missions in April 2004. They continued bonus, extended missions for years. Spirit finished communicating with Earth in March 2010. The rovers have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life.

JPL manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

To view the image of the area, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/...a/pia16139.html

For more information about Opportunity, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/rovers and http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov .

You can follow the project on Twitter and on Facebook at: http://twitter.com/MarsRovers and http://www.facebook.com/mars.rovers .


DC Agle 818-393-9011
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
agle@jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington
dwane.c.brown@nasa.gov

2012-290



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#2    Galilei

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Posted 14 September 2012 - 09:17 PM

How strange, but extraordinary. Thanks for posting this news! I can't wait to hear their hypotheses, verdict, and what they believe these geological features could overall suggest.


#3    bison

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Posted 15 September 2012 - 01:28 AM

I was struck by the resemblance of these Martian spherules to some very early fossils of bacteria colonies on Earth. Both appear to have hard shells, and relatively soft interiors. I wonder if one of the theories the scientists are entertaining involves fossils on Mars. A link to an article on these analogous looking fossils on Earth:   http://www.smh.com.a...90619-cr8c.html


#4    Parsec

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Posted 16 September 2012 - 11:10 AM

View Postbison, on 15 September 2012 - 01:28 AM, said:

I was struck by the resemblance of these Martian spherules to some very early fossils of bacteria colonies on Earth. Both appear to have hard shells, and relatively soft interiors. I wonder if one of the theories the scientists are entertaining involves fossils on Mars. A link to an article on these analogous looking fossils on Earth:   http://www.smh.com.a...90619-cr8c.html
So I'm not the only one thinking they could be fossils?
If nearby there're clay minerals, it could really be a fossilized layer of clay, but I don't think they could be bacteria, rather some shell eggs, and

Quote

"Many of the Kirkwood spheres are broken and eroded by the wind. Where wind has partially etched them away, a concentric structure is evident. [...] They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle," Squyres said.
this fosters my (crazy) idea.

Or, it could be a solidified layer of magma, with oxigen bubbles trapped in the solidifying rock, formed when the celestial body that formed the Endeavour Crater crushed the ground (well, that's a wild guess).

What I'm sure about, is that they would do an excellent plantar massage!


#5    bison

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Posted 16 September 2012 - 02:30 PM

The problem I have with this being gas bubbles trapped inside lava is as follows: What is there to preferentially preserve the thin layer of material surrounding the bubbles, while the rest of the 'matrix' is eroded away to reveal them?
     Some have favored the ideal of rock heated to such a degree that its surface bubbles, then solidifies. The problem with this is, many of the objects are more complete than a half-sphere, which is the greatest extent assumed by bubbles on a flat surface.
     Fossilized eggs are a possibility, but this would require a much further evolved form of life on Mars. It's not clear that Mars remained hospitable enough, long enough to allow this.


#6    Hammerclaw

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Posted 16 September 2012 - 03:12 PM

A fossilized Martian reef, replete with the ghostly skeletons of ancient Martian reef-building organisms. Seriously, these things seem to have formed, layer by layer, by some organic or inorganic process.

Edited by hammerclaw, 16 September 2012 - 03:14 PM.

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#7    Parsec

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Posted 16 September 2012 - 04:08 PM

View Postbison, on 16 September 2012 - 02:30 PM, said:

The problem I have with this being gas bubbles trapped inside lava is as follows: What is there to preferentially preserve the thin layer of material surrounding the bubbles, while the rest of the 'matrix' is eroded away to reveal them?
Some have favored the ideal of rock heated to such a degree that its surface bubbles, then solidifies. The problem with this is, many of the objects are more complete than a half-sphere, which is the greatest extent assumed by bubbles on a flat surface.
Fossilized eggs are a possibility, but this would require a much further evolved form of life on Mars. It's not clear that Mars remained hospitable enough, long enough to allow this.

That's why I called the first a crazy idea and the second a wild guess!

Anyway, sticking with the gas bubbles theory, the rock (the matrix, as you called it) wouldn't be eroded, that would be the upper layer. While the melted rock cooled down, the gas released couldn't escape in time and remained trapped in it, forming the rocky bubble, that remained in that shape. It's not impossible that they formed a semi-spherical shape, remember we're on another planet, with different gravity and especially with different air pressure.

About the eggs theory (honestly my favourite and most probable), I can't see the problem with evolved life: it's true that we don't know if life on Mars existed at all, so guessing for bacteria or dinosaurs in this phase is only speculation for both. Surely bacteria are more probable, but I think it could also be possibile that multicellular life evolved there, before (maybe) disappearing.
What doesn't convince me about bacteria, are the dimentions: these bubbles are roughly ten times the size of those you linked. Sure, the "another planet, gravity and air pressure" thing works for them too, but still, to me they're too big (thought I'm not a great biology expert).
Further, compare in the images below of the two pictures (in zoomed them, they're quite pixelated, but it's still understandable): the bacteria spheres are completely void inside, with a smooth surface. The only one with something inside, is one that collapsed, and thus there're the dome remainings stuck in it.
The Martian bubbles, instead, have a structure in them: it could be a melted drop of lava (according to the lava bubbles theory) or it could be what the eggs carried.

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Surely I agree with you, the bubbles look like more something "covered" by a layer, than bubbles of the layer itself.


#8    bison

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Posted 16 September 2012 - 06:34 PM

The reason bubbles consistently form hemispheres on a flat surface, is that this shape is the most stable. Bubbles are naturally driven to assume this shape, just as a coin is far more likely to lie flat than stand on its edge.  It doesn't appear that this would change with different gravity or air pressure, though their size probably would.
     Mars, having much less gravity than Earth, was apparently unable to retain a dense atmosphere over the long term. Since it took billions of years for egg laying species to evolve on Earth, this would presumably be the case on Mars, too. Harsher and harsher conditions would prevail that would seem unlikely to favor such complex forms of life. There is not only the possible problem of insufficient air for respiration at a relatively high metabolic level, but also the lack of radiation shielding a dense atmosphere provides.
     Yes, the size of the bacterial colonies on Earth, to which I referred, are about one tenth the size of the Martian spheres. I don't believe this is a serious problem. Since these are colonies of a great number of individual organisms, they might assume various sizes under varying conditions. We know of fossils of bacterial colonies on Earth, called stromatolites, which can assume a size of several feet in diameter.
      Yes, the example I gave shows more hollow-appearing spheres than those on Mars. It may be that the ones on Mars were more exposed to the elements, more worn down and broken, more subject to filling with sediment, and so their interiors better preserved by fossilization, than the Earthly example I cited. The Martian spheres do appear more worn down, I think. Fossilization is basically the replacement of living material, grain by grain, with mineral substances.


#9    Parsec

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Posted 16 September 2012 - 09:43 PM

I wonder if at NASA are discussing like we do here ( and I hope with better results).

Firstly, I agree more or less about everything you wrote bison.
About martian atmosphere, Titan, 3/4 the size of Mars, has still its own dense atmosphere, and, as far as I know, we don't know when Mars lost hers, so it could be possibile that life had the time to develope at least to that stage.
Further, on Earth life evolved in oceans, so, as you said, we can assume that it evolved in the same way on Mars. This means that, even with a thinner atmosphere, the oceans could provide enough shielding from deadly radiations (and, if I'm not wrong, the ozone layer came after the appearance of life on Earth).

Anyway, the formations remind me something I've already seen elsewhere, but I don't remember what; in particular I've already seen the inside pattern of the bubbles.
To me the key to understand what they're is the inside, shown for instance in the image I've posted before.

After this reasoning, for the moment I go with the abiotic formation, although I'd like them to be organic (bacteria or else).

Bison, do you still back the bacteria theory?


#10    sergeantflynn

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Posted 16 September 2012 - 11:07 PM

When something on mars is classed as a mystery then my brain is as good as the so-called experts .


#11    bison

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Posted 17 September 2012 - 12:19 AM

The cases of Mars and Saturn's moon Titan are not comparable. The latter spends most of its time within the powerful magnetic field of Saturn, and so, is sheltered from the solar wind. Mars, which does not have a significant magnet field appears to have had most of its atmosphere eroded fairly early on, by energetic particles from the Sun.
   In order for there to have been oceans and other bodies of water on Mars, there must have been a substantial atmosphere at the same time, otherwise, liquid water could not have  existed on the surface. It is not at all clear that these conditions prevailed long enough to foster the evolution of relatively complex, egg-laying life forms. One the other hand, bacteria might well have been able to live and adapt to the severe conditions, and even persist today. The odds seem to strongly favor simple forms of life on Mars, past and present, instead of complex ones.
     If the scientists are not able to devise a geological explanation for the spheres, they may be forced to consider a biological one. I still think that there is a reasonable chance that this is what could happen in the near future.


#12    Waspie_Dwarf

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Posted 17 September 2012 - 12:47 AM

View Postsergeantflynn, on 16 September 2012 - 11:07 PM, said:

When something on mars is classed as a mystery then my brain is as good as the so-called experts .
Don't kid yourself. The experts might not know the answers but at least they fully understand the question.

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#13    keithisco

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Posted 17 September 2012 - 12:12 PM

My immediate thought was that of boiling mud or sediment, of which there are many examples on earth (Solfatara for example). The only thing that is difficult to understand is the precise mechanism on how this mud soilidified quickly enough to retain the bubble coating. Does Opportunity have the capability to potentially sample any trapped gasses within these bubbles? Any evidence of sulphur compounds inside the bubbles?


#14    bison

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Posted 17 September 2012 - 02:51 PM

I've seen boiling, bubbling mud springs at Yellowstone, popularly known as 'mud pots'. Three observations come to mind.  1.) These mud covered bubbles are notably fragile; they burst within a second or less.  2.)One of the reasons bubbles collapse is that they lose moisture. Their drying intact, so that they could be fossilized, seems almost a contradiction in terms. 3.) As observed before, bubbles form half spheres on a flat surface. Many of the objects in the Kirkwood outcrop, just discovered on Mars, appear to be complete or nearly complete spheres.


#15    keithisco

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Posted 17 September 2012 - 05:12 PM

View Postbison, on 17 September 2012 - 02:51 PM, said:

I've seen boiling, bubbling mud springs at Yellowstone, popularly known as 'mud pots'. Three observations come to mind.  1.) These mud covered bubbles are notably fragile; they burst within a second or less.  2.)One of the reasons bubbles collapse is that they lose moisture. Their drying intact, so that they could be fossilized, seems almost a contradiction in terms. 3.) As observed before, bubbles form half spheres on a flat surface. Many of the objects in the Kirkwood outcrop, just discovered on Mars, appear to be complete or nearly complete spheres.

I am not seeing complete, or nearly complete spheres, they resemble quite closely the fumaroles formed underwater (except on a very small scale) from volcanic extrusion of gasses. IF (and this is a very big IF) the atmospheric conditions on Mars,  at the point of extrusion was so cold (as indeed it is now), then possibly, these extrusions froze on contact with the air.

Whilst bubbles do indeed collapse. the coating on the bubbles may just solidify retaing the original bubble shape, and indeed this does happen in countless ancient magma fields on earth. I would also add that perfect spheres do form on earth within pumice (ejecta coming into contact with water)

It is quite fascinating to consider all possibilities, and it would be silly to rule out even the possibility of some organic mechanism at work here, without more detailed scientific analysis

Edited by keithisco, 17 September 2012 - 05:14 PM.






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