Planets

Space Invader on Mars: Curiosity Finds a Meteorite

But the likely nickel-iron meteorite isn't the first specimen the rover has discovered in the Martian dirt.

<p>NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS <span></span></p>

If you're familiar with the pockmarked landscape of Mars, you'll know that the Red Planet gets hit by meteorites a lot. So it stands to reason that you'll likely find the occasional ex-space rock just sitting out there on the surface, particularly if your primary task is to constantly look down. And it just so happens we have a robotic geologist that has been getting intimate with Mars rocks since 2012 and it has just found a new rock beyond Mars.

The meteorite was discovered in imagery taken by Curiosity's Mastcam on sol (day) 1503 of its mission (Oct. 28) and followup studies by the rover's ChemCam on Oct. 30 revealed the object's strange, melted structure (pictured below). Curiosity is currently climbing the slopes of Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) in the center of Gale Crater after leaving the geologically fascinating region of "Murray Buttes."

University of Arizona planetary scientists believe that it is a metallic nickel-iron rich meteorite, which are commonly found on Earth. This Martian example has been nicknamed "Egg Rock" by the Curiosity mission team.

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The interesting thing about meteorites on the Martian surface is that they are not subject to some of the aggressive weathering terrestrial meteorites are. Mars' atmosphere is very dry, limiting the amount of moisture that can degrade the pristine material. These factors help to preserve the meteorite material for indefinite periods, particularly if they are metal-rich.

Also, as the Mars atmosphere is so thin, compared with Earth's hefty atmospheric gases, Mars meteors will more likely hit the ground as meteorites and not completely burn up. Therefore future human meteorite hunters would want to consider field trips to Mars to collect these treasures as they hold many clues to the composition of ancient asteroids that formed when the solar system was young.

Due to their comparative abundance on the surface, future Mars colonists may also seek out meteorites such as these so precious metals can be extracted and used for industrial processes. Although the increased risk of more frequent meteorite strikes will be a problem, the reward could be a potential goldmine of rare metals that can be found on or near the surface. Why mine asteroids when you can extract asteroid chunks from the Martian dirt?

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Though obviously a rare find for our robotic explorer, this certainly isn't the first meteorite that's been found on the Martian surface. For example, in 2014 the 6-wheeled rover spotted a huge 2 meter-wide meteorite sticking out of the Martian regolith. Mars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit have also been pretty successful meteorite hunters.

As both Curiosity and Opportunity continue to explore the Martian surface, it will be interesting to see how many more space rocks they find, potentially providing an estimate of how many meteorites may be accessible to our future Martian explorers to find.

WATCH VIDEO: What Is a Meteoroid?