Posts Tagged ‘rocks’

One Year on Mars for Curiosity

Posted by Zoe on 5th August 2013 in Exogeology, Main Page, Petra's Blog

One year ago, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars.

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), descended to the surface of Mars at 10:32 p.m. PDT on August 5, 2012 using the science fiction-sounding “sky crane” to land precisely, and thankfully, successfully.

Since that day, Curiosity has had an exciting year. In no particular order, here are a few of the rover’s major events, efforts, and discoveries:

  • Landing safely, of course.
  • Sending home her first pictures. There’s nothing like seeing an alien vista for the first time. We had seen this area of Mars from above, but when Curiosity snapped her first few photos and sent them back to Earth, we were at ground level, close up. We saw Gale crater in a way we never had before.
  • Curiosity's first image taken from the surface of Mars. (Image credit: NASA)

  • Finding rounded rocks in a riverbed. Apart from all the alliteration, this discovery is notable because it pertains to water in Mars’ past. These rocks tumbled around as they were pushed downstream by the current. They knocked into each other and became smaller and smoother and more worn down the farther they went. This happens here on Earth, which you might have noticed, and it’s why river rocks and smooth and rounded.

Rounded river rocks on Mars (left) and Earth (right). Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

  • An anomaly with one of her computers’ memory and a switch to the second computer.
  • Starting to use her fancy science tools. Curiosity really is a Mars Science Laboratory. She has several cameras for navigation and taking pictures of the scenery which give you an idea of what the various sights like rock outcroppings, sand, river rocks, and everything else look like. She has a drill for taking samples. She has a scoop for…taking samples. Those last two, along with some other instruments, are on Curiosity’s robotic arm. She has spectrometers to identify materials using the light spectrum. She has a laser. With all these awesome tools and more, it’s pretty exciting that Curiosity has been using these tools throughout the past year.

Holes from Curiosity's drill (large hole) and laser ChemCam (small holes) in a rock called Cumberland. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

  • Trying to discover whether Mars has ever had a habitable environment. This one isn’t over, it’s ongoing. In fact, it’s one of Curiosity’s primary goals. An event relating to this goal is the time Curiosity found a rock sample that shows Mars may once have been habitable for microbes. There was also the time when she found evidence of water in a place called Yellowknife Bay.  Or course, I can’t wait to see what other evidence Curiosity might find.

But, Curiosity’s not done yet. The rover is on her way Mount Sharp. She’s finally driving, and even though it’s hard to leave behind the rocks nearer to the landing site, Mount Sharp promises to be even more intriguing. Why are we looking forward to investigating Mount Sharp? Well, it’s made up of layers. The layers in Mount Sharp might show us more about what Mars’ climate was like long ago and all the changes it has been through. How cool is that?

If you ask me, everything Curiosity has done in her first one year on Mars has been very cool.

-Petra Stone

New Photo Gallery!

Posted by Zoe on 13th April 2010 in Main Page

Hello out there! It’s Zoë again with great news! I now have a working Photo Gallery up. Petra posted new blogs recently too, about a post per day, so keep checking up on her on Exogeology ROCKS!

The photo gallery is over on the sidebar underneath the “Games and Puzzles” category. I’ve made 5 different sets of photographs: Mineral and Rock Samples, Geologic Formations, Astronomy Pictures, Spacecraft and Landers, and Telescopes and Observatories. Check them all out! Each photo has a great description of whatever it has in it, and the pictures ROCK!

Until next time, I’m Zoë Bentley and Exogeology ROCKS!

About Me

Posted by Petra on 11th April 2010 in Petra's Blog

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll already know me a bit. But I want to give you a better idea of what I’m like. For starters, I’m Petra Stone, an exogeologist. I love geology and astronomy, but I also love writing and traveling. The following are some questions that I’m often asked by people:

What are you currently working on?

  • I’m currently in Iceland working and studying glacial formations. This is research for the Mars mission I’m working on which is going to Mars’ north pole.

What is your favorite planet?

  • My favorite planet is Mars, because I think the geology is fascinating.

What is your favorite color?

  • Purple, of course! That’s why the planet on this website is purple! :)

What is the best project you have worked on?

  • My favorite projects to work on have included: identifying Martian rocks, using relative dating on alien formations, and traveling to far-off locations around Earth. I’ve never been off of Earth, but I’m sure it would an amazing experience. I’ve worked with several astronauts here at NASA who have been off-world and they’ve told me some fantastic stories.

What things do you like to do (what are your hobbies)?

  • Other than my job, some of my hobbies are reading, jewelry making (I bead memory wire bracelets usually), rock collecting (I have a huge collection with geodes, and jasper, and malachite, oh my!), stargazing and learning the myths behind the constellations, and of course, writing this blog! I like finding unique arts and crafts projects too, that can be really fun. I also love hiking. I love getting a great view of the area, and it gives me a chance to look at the rocks. :)
  • Another interest of mine is photography. I can never get my regular camera to take great objects like the moon, but it’s fun to get photographs of other things. I’ve taken photos of places I’ve been, things I’ve seen, and whatever I want to keep a record of or I just think looks cool. It can come in handy to be a fairly good photographer when you’re classifying rock samples (I use several special cameras for my job), but what really ROCKS is when I have the opportunity to take photographs through a telescope. Telescopes at observatories have great cameras for visible and non-visible light! I could never get photographs like those with my own camera. To see some samples of these, be sure to check out the NASA image gallery!

What is your favorite movie and/or television show?

  • I like science fiction movies and TV shows best, but I also like mystery shows. I like non-fiction TV shows too, but I often find long documentaries too long–I prefer shows to have a fictional storyline if they’re going to be really long.  The exception to this is The Elegant Universe. If you’ve ever been interested in physics, that show will get you even more interested! Seeing that for the first time really piqued my interest in string theory and m-theory.
  • My favorite TV shows are The Universe, Doctor Who, and, of course, Star Trek (all series, but Voyager is my favorite).

What are your favorite books?

  • Books I like are usually fantasy, not science fiction. I really enjoyed the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series, the Magyk series,  and similar types of novels. I also really enjoy reading non-fiction science, especially if it has to do with time travel! I read magazines, technical periodicals, as well as the latest papers that my colleagues publish.

Do you enjoy writing?

  • I absolutely love writing! I spend most of my time writing papers about geology and exogeology (since those are the topics I know best and they are what I spend most of my time researching), but every once in a while I’ll take an interest in other topics and feel like I just have to share my findings with the world!
  • I occasionally even write haiku! Here are two examples:

Twinkling balls of light
So many lightyears away
Estrellas lindas

Rocky Mars landscape
Red mesa towers above
Like Arizona

As you can see, there’s a lot more going in my life than just my job. However, exogeology just happens to be what I like most, and a lot of the things I like are somehow related (ultimately everything seems to be related if you think about it enough). That’s just what I like!  It’s why I became an exogeologist.

Exploring the Red Planet, Part Two, Mapping

Posted by Petra on 5th April 2010 in Petra's Blog

Photograph by NASA, found at http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/photo_gallery/photogallery-mars.html

An important part of exogeology is exploring! Rovers on the surface and orbiters up above the surface both tell us a lot about the surface of Mars.

The Mariner spacecraft were the first to provide closeup photos of another planet. That’s really impressive. There were a lot of flybys and orbiters since then, and now NASA has an amazingly good photograph of how Mars looks from space.

The other part of mapping Mars is actually going down and looking at everything close up. Rovers and landers like Viking and the Mars Exploration rovers worked hard to do that. The Viking missions were the first successful Mars landers, and there’s a picture Viking 2 took in the photo gallery.

The Mars Exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been exploring Mars for a lot longer than was expected, and I’m still receiving data! Someday there will even be astronauts going to Mars! Exogeology ROCKS!

Exogeology on Earth

Posted by Petra on 4th April 2010 in Petra's Blog

Yes, on Earth! Even though I mainly study other planets, Earth is a great place to see all sorts of geologic formations! Let me tell you about some great things to see on Earth that I’ve seen on the planets and moons.

Wait, craters on Earth? I thought there were only craters on the Moon! No, actually there can be craters on just about anything (as long as it has a solid surface; there aren’t craters on jovian planets). Earth has relatively few though, because smaller meteors burn up in our thick atmosphere. But some of the few meteor craters there are on Earth can be quite something to see! It’s almost like you’re on the moon! Barringer Crater in Arizona is the best example. Most craters on Earth are a bit less dramatic though, after being eroded for thousands of years. It gives you a great sense of what you’re dealing with to go and see a real crater.

Canyons are usually carved out by rivers, so why would they be in a list of exogeology related formations? After all, Earth is the only planet with such a large amount of water. Well, I’ve added them for a couple reasons. The first is that there are some formations that can best be described as canyons, even though they’re not made in the same way as the canyons we’re used to seeing. Take Mars’ Valles Marineris. It’s the largest canyon in the Solar System, but it’s a rift valley (a type of fault). On the other hand, there are channels on Mars that might have been made by the flow of water, like dried up riverbeds. I’ll talk about that more in a later post.

Ice fields are the only formation on this list I have yet to see. I’m actually going to be flying to Iceland for a few days to study glaciers. Because of this, posts over the next few days will be automated while I’m gone. Ice has been found all over: in comets and asteroids, on moons (Europa in particular), and on Mars. The gas giants are theorized to have icy cores. But not all this ice is actually frozen water. Europa might have water ice, but we don’t know for sure. Comets have water ice though. Water is so important on Earth that I think everything with water is exciting! Water is necessary for life, and that’s something I’d be thrilled to find. Could you imagine? I’m a huge science fiction fan, and that inspires me to think about big new scientific discoveries like life or undiscovered planets all the time. I’m getting off topic. Let’s get back to those awesome rocks!

Sand dunes can be found wherever there is sand, wind, and a dry climate. I went to the White Sands National Monument recently, and it was beautiful! As soon as you drove into the park there were sand dunes as far as you could see. The field of dunes was comparable to some of the dunes on Mars. An even better comparison is Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. The reddish sand makes it feel as if you’re really on Mars. Dusty parts of deserts are also good places to look for dust devils, a common sight on the red planet.

Yes, I know, I was supposed to tell you about formations and not minerals. But minerals are important too! You need to look at the big things and the little things. There are a whole bunch of rocks and minerals that occur on Earth and also in space. One of my favorites is hematite. That’s an iron based mineral common on Mars. It comes in a few different forms. One form of hematite is red and rocky, and another is silvery gray and metallic. Iron in rocks is what makes Mars red! Moon rocks are pretty cool too; a rock from a lunar mare is made of the same thing as lava rocks on Earth! That ROCKS! 😉

Volcanoes have been found on Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Io. And on Titan there are cryovolcanoes! There are active and inactive volcanoes all over Earth that are fascinating to see in person. I try to go to as many volcano sites as I can during field research.

Plate tectonics is the process that makes the continents move. They spread apart like at the mid Atlantic ridge, and move under each other (called subduction) in places like Japan and the Aleutian islands of Alaska. The Earth’s surface is changing! And what’s more, there used to be plate tectonics on ancient Mars, and there still are on Titan!

Strata is just another term for rock layers. There are strata everywhere! That’s because rock layers can form all sorts of ways, like an ocean depositing sand on a beach or volcanoes erupting new lava flows. Strata can show a lot about that geographical area’s past. One time I looked at the strata in the Grand Canyon to figure out what order things happened in. I could easily see that the layers on the bottom formed first, then were tilted, and then that surface was eroded flat. More layers formed, and finally the Colorado River eroded the rocks away to create the Grand Canyon! How cool is it that you can tell what was happening for millions of years just by looking at rocks? I say that ROCKS! I do the exact same sort of thing when I look at strata from anywhere.

Can you believe so many of the same things happen on Earth that happen on other planets? I think it’s amazing. Exogeology ROCKS!

A Day in the Life of an Exogeologist

Posted by Petra on 3rd April 2010 in Petra's Blog

Want to know just what an exogeologist does all day? Well, maybe I can show you just how cool this job is!

When I start working for the day, the first thing I do is see if I’ve received any new data. This could be from other exogeologists or from different spacecraft. I sometimes even get rock samples to analyze. If I do, I’ll take them to the lab. There I’ll test the sample to find out its composition.

There are lots of tests I can do. I can test minerals for streak, hardness, cleavage or fracture, and of course note the color and shape of the crystals. For example, let’s say I was given a mineral sample to identify. It has cube-shaped crystals, and is gold in color.  I rub it on a streak plate, and the streak is greenish black. I’ll scratch it with various tools and deduce that its Mohs hardness is 6. When I break it with a hammer, the place where it breaks is conchoidal (a distinctive curved shape). All these things put together tell me that my mineral is pyrite. If I were given a rock sample, there are a lot of various tests I could do to classify a rock, like cutting a thin slice and looking at it under a microscope.

  • Here’s a quick tip about classifying rocks: If it has bubbles, it’s got to be igneous. Those bubbles are called vesicles, and they’re made when gas bubbles are trapped inside a rock as it cools.

Some days I’ll go to an observatory to do research on a planet. I need to reserve the telescope ahead of time usually. When I used a telescope at the Kitt Peak observatory, I had to reserve the telescope years in advance! But it was worth it. I got some great photographs of Jupiter and a comet during my time at the telescope. I’ve used lots of different observatories, and it’s always been productive. Well, except for that one time when it rained… I had to cancel. I must have been really unlucky that time. But that’s the trouble with astronomy; sometimes you just have to wait for another clear night. At least every other time went well.

Other days I’ll get information from a spacecraft or lander! That’s my favorite part! Once, I got to help with the LCROSS mission and interpret data from the spectrometer. The goal was to find water, and we did! That ROCKS! Since Mars is my specialty, I’ve been receiving data from the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which maps the amount of chemical elements and their distribution. I loved working on that. Maybe I’ll get to interpret data from the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Part of the MSL’s mission will be to study the geology of Mars.

Exogeology ROCKS!

How I became an Exogeologist

Posted by Petra on 31st March 2010 in Petra's Blog

Well, I’ve always been an exogeologist really, it just wasn’t my job title until now.

I’ve always been interested in geology. When I was little some of my favorite books were about volcanoes, and I started a rock collection. As I got older I learned to recognize a lot of different minerals and rocks. I just loved learning about different kinds of lava and eruptions, and about which rocks were quartz and which were pyrite. As I got older I got more books, and my rock collection grew. I read about geology as much as I could. I had a lot of other interests along the way, and I’d focus on that for a while, but geology was always an interest of mine, even if it wasn’t the focus of my life.

I also watched a lot of episodes of NOVA and The Universe. I’ve also always liked space, but never as much as rocks. I mean, lots of kids want to be an astronaut at some point, or an astronomer, or something like that. Space is just too cool not to! Or at least that’s my opinion. I lived in a great place for both geology and astronomy (Tucson AZ), and just for fun my family visited places like the Kitt Peak and Whipple observatories.

At age 13,  I started taking college classes at the local community college. By then I knew all about how geology could be used for things like analyzing moon rocks, and finding volcanoes on other planets. I thought it was really cool that Earth wasn’t the only planet to have geology! And of course, I wanted to learn more. I first took a geology class, because geology was my passion. The very last part of that class was about exogeology. And it was by far the best part. I got to see a picture of a hypothetical planet; I figured out what caused different landforms and how to use relative dating. I also got to look at craters on Earth. I later took an astronomy class, because I wanted to learn more about exogeology, but I didn’t know as much about the astronomy aspect. I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I was hooked, I wanted to be an exogeologist.

I then took more exogeology-related classes, which were mostly just geology or astronomy, one or the other, but they were all really interesting and I learned a lot. A few years ago I started working for NASA as an exogeologist. I’ve done all kinds of neat things since then, but my favorite is figuring out just what caused different formations (especially on Mars, that’s my specialty), like the Valles Marineris, or just rock strata. I love my job! I hope you’ll have just as much fun exploring exogeology as I do!

Exogeology ROCKS!