Cosmic coincidence on the road to Glenelg

 
Jake The rock known as Jake Matijevic: Anything but dull

This is a tale of a wonderful coincidence that ties together Mars, the Canadian north-west, Scotland and 100 years of geology. Bear with me because it takes a little while to pull all the threads together, but it's worth it, I promise.

It starts with an object called Jake.

I wrote last week about a dark, pyramid-shaped igneous rock on the Red Planet that had just been investigated by Nasa's Curiosity rover.

It certainly looked cool and it caught the imagination because my report subsequently clocked more hits that day than any other news story on the BBC. Never mind wars, politics and the economy - everyone, it seemed, wanted to find out more about this unusual, 25cm-high rock sitting in a crater almost 300 million km from Earth.

When Curiosity approached the volcanic rock, there was never really any expectation that it would pique great excitement.

It looked like just another dull piece of basalt, so much of which litters the Martian surface. But the science team on Curiosity needed a target to try out the first close-contact work using the rover's arm-held X-ray-spectrometer, APXS. So the dark pyramid was chosen and informally given the name Jake Matijevic in honour of a recently deceased rover engineer.

APXS investigation The science team needed a target to start some close-contact work with APXS

The results of the investigation by APXS, and the rover's laser instrument, ChemCam, revealed the rock to be anything but dull.

The science team likened its chemistry to some relatively rare but well-studied alkaline rocks on Earth found on oceanic islands such as Hawaii and the Azores, and also in rift zones like the Rio Grande. On Earth, such rocks typically form from relatively water-rich magmas that have cooled slowly at raised pressures.

The Curiosity team compared their formation to the fractionation that occurred in the old colonial method of making apple jack liquor. This process saw barrels of cider left outside in winter to partially freeze. As the barrels iced up, they would concentrate the apple-flavoured liquor.

Likewise, cooling magmas under pressure will crystallise and concentrate residual fluids. Jake was a consequence of those residual fluids, eventually solidifying just inside a Martian volcano or in a lava flow.

Map of Gale Crater The rover landed in Gale Crater and started moving towards Glenelg. During the trek, on the 43rd Martian day of the mission, Curiosity came across the pyramidal rock

Well, everyone loved the apple jack analogy but a number of you got in touch to ask for the exact classification of the rock.

"What scientific name are they giving to the lithology?" you wanted to know.

Glenelg Glenelg in Scotland is enjoying being in the international - and interplanetary - limelight

And so I went back to rover scientist and petrologist Prof Ed Stolper, who had presented the Jake results. Could he provide one?

This was not straightforward, he explained. Although APXS and ChemCam will tell you which chemical elements are present, they don't tell you how precisely those atoms are arranged into the crystalline structures that make up the rock, and both this mineralogy and the chemical composition are ideally needed to assign a rock name.

So there's a bit of guesstimation going on here. From the chemical composition, you have to work out the most likely mineralogy.

As mentioned, Jake has much higher amounts of alkali elements, metals such as sodium and potassium, than previously analysed Martian rocks. And that has Prof Stolper and the rest of the rover science team leaning (with a lot of caveats) towards a classification that sits on a well-established sequence of alkaline igneous rocks - one that goes by the name "mugearite".

And this is where we come to the great coincidence.

Map of Scotland

If you've been following the Curiosity rover story closely, you'll know that scientists on the mission have been using names taken from Canada's Northwest Territories to label the places the rover is visiting.

The Canadian north-west has some ancient rock formations, similar in age, we think, to those found in Gale Crater, Curiosity's landing site.

Curiosity - Mars Science Laboratory

Rover (Nasa)
  • Mission goal is to determine whether Mars has ever had the conditions to support life
  • Project costed at $2.5bn; will see initial surface operations lasting two Earth years
  • Onboard plutonium generators will deliver heat and electricity for at least 14 years
  • 75kg science payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier US Mars rovers
  • Equipped with tools to brush and drill into rocks, to scoop up, sort and sieve samples
  • Variety of analytical techniques to discern chemistry in rocks, soil and atmosphere
  • Will try to make first definitive identification of organic (carbon rich) compounds
  • Even carries a laser to zap rocks; beam will identify atomic elements in rocks

The naming system makes it easy for everyone to understand what's being discussed when a particular location comes up in conversation. So, for example, the rover is currently making its way to a place everyone is referring to as Glenelg.

This name is taken from a particular rock unit in the Northwest Territories, but it has an even older lineage - one that goes back to a small Highland settlement in Scotland.

This version of Glenelg is found on the western edge of the mainland, right by the water channel separating the Isle of Skye from the rest of Scotland.

Now read what Prof Stolper told me: "The 'type locality' for mugearite [i.e. the place the rock was first discovered, or at least defined as a distinctive rock type] is Mugeary, which turns out to be on Skye only 25 miles west of Glenelg.

"The fellow who named the rock type [in 1904] was Alfred Harker, the most influential British petrographer/petrologist of the first third (or so) of the 20th Century.

"Given the nearness of Mugeary and Glenelg, I consider it to be a great cosmic coincidence that on its way to Glenelg, the Curiosity rover found a rock that can legitimately be called a mugearite!"

Life has a habit of throwing up such remarkable connections. Glenelg was identified and named on Mars four weeks before Jake was even seen.

Curiosity only landed on the Red Planet in August but already it has returned some truly exciting science. And to think we have another couple of years at least to go on this mission.

Glenelg The light-coloured tones two-thirds up this panorama from the rover are in the region known as Glenelg
 
Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 221.

    Slightly frustrating that all the idiotic comments that have been replied to are too far down to bother finding, but all the scathing replies are here. Think I can guess though.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 220.

    #219 Drunken Hobo
    Its just that Alpha Centauri is very close, as close as we can get to another system, and where there is one planet there may be more. It certainly makes an argument for extended observation or for the development of new telescopes to make direct observation possible.
    We have various pieces of the solar system puzzle but one missing one is a detailed look into another system.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 219.

    218 Robert Lucien - I may have misunderstood but we have directly imaged quite a few exoplanets, although they're usually huge and far away from their star. I think this new one is too small & close to its star to see directly.
    Hopefully we'll find a few other planets in this system, as both stars are very similar to our own. Could already have life or be able to support humans in the future.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 218.

    Something far more interesting than this debate - a planet has just been found in orbit around Alpha Centauri. - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19959531
    Even though Alpha Centauri is some 286,000 times further away from the Earth than the sun its closeness might just open up the possibility of direct observation for the first time. - Incredible things leap from there.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 217.

    Millions of poor going hungry - useless and superfluous Luddites and complainers at progress and future hope - an economy the world over that needs less and less jobs while there are more and more available workers?
    I can see a solution here its not very politically correct and its currently still illegal, but its only a matter of time - turkeys can always be persuaded to vote for Christmas.. :D

 

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