NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover conducted its first soil sample analysis using its miniaturized X-Ray diffraction instrument that is a part of CheMin instrument (a miniature lab on wheels). The soil sample was collected from an area known as Rocknest in the Gale Crater. The analysis revealed that the sample is a weathered volcanic type similar to the soil found on the Hawaiian Islands.
“We now know it is mineralogically similar to basaltic material, with significant amounts of feldspar, pyroxene and olivine, which was not unexpected. Roughly half the soil is non-crystalline material, such as volcanic glass or products from weathering of the glass. So far, the materials Curiosity has analyzed are consistent with our initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater recording a transition through time from a wet to dry environment. The ancient rocks, such as the conglomerates, suggest flowing water, while the minerals in the younger soil are consistent with limited interaction with water.”
The X-Ray diffraction instrument used for the analysis is a wonder in itself. X-Ray diffraction instruments are typically the size of a refrigerator but NASA has managed to shrink theirs down to the size of a book. It can analyze samples by shooting X-Rays through them while vibrating the samples at 2,000 times per second to churn the fine particles in order to ensure each particle is struck randomly by the X-Rays and thus, provide a more complete picture of the soil particle.