Searching for Magnetic Treasure on Mars

Megan Anderson and Sam Henderson

Intro: In 2004 and again in 2009 NASA launched Mars rovers in order to find evidence of water ever being on the surface of mars. The rovers are very innovative and they have arms much like a humans arm in order to collect samples, pick up objects, and more. One of the overall goals that NASA hopes to one day realize is a human colonization of mars and other planets like it. However, in order to determine the viability of a planet we must first know its past. That is why one of the rover’s main missions is to determine if water was ever present on Mars surface. Some of the tools used are panoramic cameras (to take pictures), Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (which identifies certain rocks that may be important in the study, also gathers the temperature and conditions of the planet) Mössbauer Spectrometer (to inspect materials found on the planet close up), and many others. Among these tools, magnets are one of them. Magnets are used in the soil analysis on Mars.
The rover standing on Martian terrain
The rover standing on Martian terrain

(left: one of NASA's mars rovers)
(Below: A link to a trailer that gives an overview to the Mars Rover mission)

What the magnets do: They are used to find dust particles within the soil on mars. The scientists at NASA are wanting to figure out the magnetic to non magnetic ratio of the dust. They also want to pull any particles of dust in the air which have magnetic properties in them. Magnets perform a key function in the overall mission of determining whether water has ever been present on Mars surface. The mineral deposits of the planet would help to show how long ago it was present as well as what scale it was present on. Since the mineral dust particles on mars are magnetic, the magnets that the rovers are equipped with are invaluable as they provide the means for the collection of the mineral.

The Process: On each rover there are three sets of magnets. The first set is found attached to a drilling instrument known as the Rock Abrasion tool (or RAT). As the RAT grinds into the surface it causes dust to be expelled which the magnets then collect for analysis. The second set of magnets is located at the front of the rover. When the dust particles are gathered onto this set of magnets it is then analyzed by the Mössbauer Spectrometer and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, which is used “for close-up analysis of the abundances of elements that make up rocks and soils.” These results can then be analyzed on earth by scientists. The third set of magnets is mounted on top of the rover deck. These magnets are not used to gather particles for data analysis; rather they are cleverly used as a type of dust shield. The reasoning behind this is that much of the dust that is in the air is also magnetic, and it is thought that prolonged conditions to these types of dust storms can cause wear and tear on the rovers. These magnets repel this harmful dust and ensure that the rover can keep collecting data.
040804.jpg (left: a diagram of the Rover and the locations of the magnets)
The Results: After the soil analysis was completed, the scientists at NASA discovered the soil on Mars contained Silicon, Iron, Magnesium, Aluminum, Sulfer, Titanium, and Calcium. The magnets picked up and analyzed the amount of Potassium in the soil which turned out to be about one-fifth the amount on Earth. They also discovered samples with Sulfur and Chlorine which may have indicated to a body of salt-water evaporating. They also concluded that some materials found,magnetite and maghemite, could possibly be because of basalt rock eroding. Another discovery made is that magnetite could also be the reason why Mars soil is the way it is. The analysis also indicated that the soil on mars contained anywhere between three and seven percent magnetic materials.

(Above: one of the pictures took by the Mars rover using its panoramic camera)

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