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Data from the Curiosity Rover on Mars being studied by University of Calgary scientists

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The Curiosity Rover has been gathering data from Mars and sending it back to scientists on Earth for 11 years. In that time, it's traveled more than 28 kilometres and gained 609 metres in elevation at Mount Sharp on the Martian surface.

Benjamin Tutolo is an associate professor at the University of Calgary's department of geoscience who is taking a careful look at data transmitted by Curiosity about the layers of rock in the area.

"It's sending us things like geochemical analyses of the rocks that it sees," he said. "Mineralogical analysis of the rocks it sees, beautiful pictures that we can all look at and say where this is geologically, this is what this means geologically and then also things like how much water is in this material, how much organic matter is in this material."

Tutolo says as the rover climbs the mountain, it's finding minerals in the rocks like magnesium sulfate that is similar to epsom salt here on Earth that's added to bath water.

"In order for water to make epsom salt, it has to be very, very dry," said Tutolo. "It has to dry out completely in order to precipitate epsom salt, so we know we're going from this transition of a wet lake up to a much drier, saltier environment as we go up this Mount Sharp in the center of the crater."

Tutolo is using the Mars data and comparing it to lakes in British Columbia. He's using computer simulations to understand the transition from the wet lake environment in B.C. to this dry, salty Martian environment.

Every three years, NASA has a call for scientists to participate in missions. At least 100 applications were submitted and Tutolo is one of two Canadian scientists approved.

"My proposal was selected and then I get to apply a second time to the Canada Space Agency (CSA)," he said. "They were able to fund the research so NASA doesn't give me funding, they just give me data and information."

Stephen Larter is collaborating with Tutolo on the three-year project. He's a professor of geochemistry at the U of C who's focus is trying to find signals in some of the Martian rocks that relate to potential life and past life on Mars.

"The Curiosity Rover has an instrument package on board that allows it to sample rocks," Larter said. "If there's any organic material there (the rover puts it) into a mass spectrometer and it can characterize the molecular signatures of this organic matter."

He says one of the challenges on Mars it there is a lot of surface radiation because the red planet doesn't have a strong magnetic field and its atmosphere is less than one per cent of Earth's, so it's constantly being bombarded by cosmic rays. That radiation has a negative impact on organic material and what's being found is incredibly small particles.

Tutolo says he's honoured to be part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission. He's amazed at the engineering and technology packed into the Curiosity Rover that allows it to transmit data 225 million kilometres from Earth.

"By comparing the way that Mars evolved and the way the Earth evolved, we can understand the role of life in the planetary system and we can also understand how the planet plays a role in controlling the evolution of life," he said.

Learn more about the Curiosity Rover here.

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