One of the latest Curiosity Mars mission papers has a lead writer in space right now.
NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins managed to pull out a release about the Curiosity rover mission, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Mars Friday (5 August), just before launch to the International Space Station.
It has been a long road to publication in this Journal of Geophysical Research (opens in new tab), which however discusses the surroundings of Curiosity’s landing site at Gale Crater. Watkins and her team submitted the work in 2017, but a distraction occurred in her professional life.
“Shortly after the paper was returned to us by the magazine’s editor with the reviewers’ comments, I was selected by NASA and was unable to complete the revisions before reporting for duty as an astronaut candidate,” Watkins told Eos (opens in new tab)a scientific publication of the American Geophysical Union (which also publishes the journal in which Watkins’ article appeared).
A typical astronaut candidate must complete at least two years of training before being certified for spaceflight, and to be fair to Watkins, she dived into her SpaceX Crew-4 mission training almost immediately after her certification in 2020.
“After focusing on training for a few years, I was able to go back [the paper] with the help of my co-authors,” said Watkins, noting that final acceptance occurred around her April 27 launch date for Crew-4. The release came on June 8, around the six-week mark of her mission.
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The affiliation with Curiosity is hardly surprising since, according to her NASA bio, Watkins trained as a planetary geologist and previously served as a member of the science team on the mission (opens in new tab).
Her graduate research at the University of California, Los Angeles, next door to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Curiosity operations take place, focused on “the emplacement mechanisms of large landslides on Mars and Earth,” the agency explained.
The paper, led by Watkins, focuses on the formation of sedimentary rocks on Mars based on data collected by Curiosity. Rocks, the paper’s easy-to-understand summary states, are formed after sediments have been “exhumed and returned to the crust by reburial.”
The paper aims to provide more information on the exhumation (exposure) that is “poorly constrained” on Mars. The team used eroded surfaces as proxies to better understand how ancient rocks are exhumed on the Red Planet, suggesting it’s mainly dust causing this process, rather than water on Mars.
This process could be helpful in better understanding the search for life on Mars, the abstract adds. “Understanding the sedimentary rock cycle is particularly important in the search for ancient biosignatures on Mars, since virtually all of the remains of Earth’s earliest biosphere are preserved in sedimentary rocks formed in this way.”
The search for habitability on Mars is Curiosity’s main quest, while its newer cousin Perseverance searches Jezero Crater for signs of ancient life itself. Perseverance will support a Mars sample return mission to transport rocks and potential biosignatures back to Earth for detailed analysis.
“This paper describes the discovery of an unconformity in a sequence of sedimentary rocks on Mars. An unconformity represents a discontinuity in time of deposition between sequences of rocks,” Watkins told Eos of the work.
The unconformity, she said, is significant because it shows a time of transition between deposition of older and younger rocks, between different environmental “regimes” contrasted by lake rocks and newer Aeolian rocks.
“In this case, it separates the rocks that record a time when a lake was present at Gale Crater and an overlying succession of rocks that record a time when the climate was much drier – leading to the formation of aeolian ones sand dunes led. ‘ added Watkins.
Watkins, also the first black woman to undertake a long-term space mission, could be assigned to do planetary geology on another world. The astronaut is part of a squad named for future missions in the Artemis program, which aims to put boots on the moon later in the 2020s.