In detective stories, as the plot thickens, an unexpected clue often delivers more questions than answers. In this case, the scene is a mountain on Mars. The clue: the chemical compound silica. Lots of silica. The sleuths: a savvy band of Earthbound researchers whose agent on Mars is NASA's laser-flashing, one-armed mobile laboratory, Curiosity.
NASA's Curiosity rover has found much higher concentrations of silica at some sites it has investigated in the past seven months than anywhere else it has visited since landing on Mars 40 months ago. Silica makes up nine-tenths of the composition of some of the rocks. It is a rock-forming chemical combining the elements silicon and oxygen, commonly seen on Earth as quartz, but also in many other minerals.
"These high-silica compositions are a puzzle. You can boost the concentration of silica either by leaching away other ingredients while leaving the silica behind, or by bringing in silica from somewhere else," said Albert Yen, a Curiosity science team member at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "Either of those processes involve water. If we can determine which happened, we'll learn more about other conditions in those ancient wet environments."
Water that is acidic would tend to carry other ingredients away and leave silica behind. Alkaline or neutral water could bring in dissolved silica that would be deposited from the solution. Apart from presenting a puzzle about the history of the region where Curiosity is working, the recent findings on Mount Sharp have intriguing threads linked to what an earlier NASA rover, Spirit, found halfway around Mars. There, signs of sulfuric acidity were observed, but Curiosity's science team is still considering both scenarios -- and others -- to explain the findings on Mount Sharp.
A different take.