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Scientists carry out first rock dating experiment on Mars

By Salome Phelamei | Last Updated: Friday, December 13, 2013 - 16:27

Zee Media Bureau/Salome Phelamei

Washington: Scientists have, for the first time, successfully determined the age of a Martian rock through experiments being carried out on the Red Planet.

The experiment, which was published in the journal Science Express, was led by geochemist Ken Farley of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), will not only help in understanding the geologic history of Mars but also aid in the search for evidence of ancient life on the planet.

Farley and his colleagues determined the age of the rock to be about 3.86 to 4.56 billion years old.

While researchers have measured the ages of rocks from other planetary bodies, the actual studies such as determining moon rocks and meteorites have always been done on Earth.

Many of the experiments carried out by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission`s Curiosity rover were painstakingly planned by NASA scientists more than a decade ago.

In March, Curiosity drilled holes into the mud-stone and collected powdered rock samples from two locations about three meters apart.

Once the rock samples were drilled, Curiosity`s robotic arm delivered the rock powder to the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument, where it was used for a variety of chemical analyses, including rock dating-techniques.

One technique, potassium-argon dating, determines the age of a rock sample by measuring how much argon gas it contains.

The potassium-argon method has been used to date rocks on Earth for many decades, but these types of measurements need sophisticated lab equipment to carry out the work.

Farley and team heated the sample to high temperatures so that the gases within the rock could be released and could be analysed by an on-board mass spectrometer.

“In one sense, this is an utterly unsurprising result - it’s the number that everybody expected,” Farley said.

First Published: Friday, December 13, 2013 - 16:27

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