One of the latest papers for the Mars Curiosity mission happens to have a lead author in space right now.
NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins managed to snag a post about the Curiosity rover’s mission, which turns 10 on Mars Friday (August 5), just before launch to the International Space Station.
It’s been a long road to getting this paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research (opens in new tab), which does, however, discuss the environment at Curiosity’s Gale Crater landing site. Watkins and her team submitted the report in 2017, but her professional life became a distraction.
“Shortly after the paper was returned to us by the journal’s editor with reviewer 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 appears.)
A typical astronaut candidate must complete at least two years of training before being certified for spaceflight, and to be fair to Watkins, she was immersed in her training for the SpaceX Crew-4 mission almost immediately after her certification in 2020 .
“After a few years of focusing on training, I was able to get back to [the paper] with the help of my co-authors,” Watkins said, noting that final acceptance occurred around her April 27 Crew-4 launch date. The release took place on June 8, around the six-week mark of her mission.
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The Curiosity affiliation is hardly surprising, as Watkins was trained as a planetary geologist and previously served as a science team associate on the mission, according to her NASA biography (opens in new tab).
Her graduate research at the University of California, Los Angeles, just down the road from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Curiosity’s operations take place, focused on “the mechanisms for setting large landslides on Mars and Earth,” the agency said.
The report, led by Watkins, focuses on the formation of sedimentary rocks on Mars based on data collected by Curiosity. The rocks, the plain-language summary states, form after sediments are “exhumed and recycled back into the Earth’s crust by reburial.”
The paper aims to provide more information on exhumation (uncovering), which is “poorly constrained” on Mars. The team used eroded surfaces as a proxy to better understand how ancient rocks on the Red Planet are exhumed, suggesting that it is primarily dust that causes this process, not water on Mars.
This process could be useful in better understanding the search for life on Mars, the abstract added. “Understanding the cycle of sedimentary rocks is particularly important in the search for ancient biosignatures on Mars because virtually all remnants of Earth’s earliest biosphere are preserved in sedimentary rocks that formed this way.”
The search for habitability on Mars is Curiosity’s main mission, while its newer cousin Perseverance is searching Jezero Crater for signs of ancient life itself. Perseverance will assist a mission to return a sample from Mars to ferry 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. The unconformity represents a discontinuity in depositional time between sequences of rocks,” Watkins told Eos about the work.
The unconformity, she said, is significant because it indicates a transition time between when older and younger rocks were deposited, between different environmental “regimes” contrasting lacustrine rocks and newer eolian ones.
“In this case, it separates rocks that record a time when a lake was present in Gale Crater and an overlying sequence of rocks that record a time when the climate was much drier – leading to the formation of eolian sand dunes,” , Watkins added.
Watkins, also the first black woman to undertake a long-duration space mission, may be tasked with planetary geology on another world. The astronaut is among the cadre assigned to future missions of the Artemis program, which aims to launch boots on the moon later in the 2020s.