Science

A NASA astronaut in space just published a scientific paper on Martian rocks.

The lead author of one of the latest articles on the Curiosity mission to Mars is in space right now.

NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins managed to publish a publication about the 10-year-old Curiosity rover mission on Mars on Friday (August 5), just before launch to the International Space Station.

It’s been a long road to getting published in Geophysical Research. (will open in a new tab), however, which discusses the environment of the Curiosity landing site at Gale Crater. Watkins and her team submitted the paper in 2017, but there was a distraction in her professional life.

“Shortly after the article was returned to us by the journal editor with reviewer’s comments, I was selected by NASA and was unable to complete the revisions before reporting for duty as an astronaut candidate,” Watkins told Eos. (will open in a new tab)scientific publication of the American Geophysical Union (which also publishes the journal in which Watkins’ article appeared).

The typical astronaut candidate must complete at least two years of training before being certified for spaceflight, and to be fair to Watkins, she plunged into training for the SpaceX Crew-4 mission almost immediately after certification in 2020.

“After several years of focusing on training, I was able to return to [the paper] with the help of my collaborators,” Watkins said, noting that the final acceptance came around April 27, when she was launching Crew-4. The publication took place on June 8, about six weeks into her mission.

Photo: The first space tourists

Curiosity’s affiliation is not surprising, as Watkins was trained as a planetary geologist and previously worked as a mission science team member, according to her NASA biography. (will open in a new tab).

Her graduate research at UCLA, near NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home of Curiosity’s operations, focused on “mechanisms for locating large landslides on Mars and Earth,” the agency said.

An article led by Watkins focuses on the formation of sedimentary rocks on Mars based on data collected by Curiosity. Rocks, the article’s summary says, are formed after sediments are “exhumed and recycled back into the earth’s crust by reburial.”

A Martian panorama showing a view of Mount Sharp in the center of the image and the rounded hills in the distance.

A Martian panorama taken by the Curiosity rover shows a view of Mount Sharp in the center of the image and the rounded hills in the distance. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The article aims to provide more information about exhumation (discovery), which is “poorly limited” on Mars. The team used eroded surfaces as a proxy to better understand how ancient rocks are exhumed on the Red Planet, suggesting that the process is primarily caused by dust rather than water on Mars.

This process could help better understand the search for life on Mars, the summary says. “Understanding the sedimentary rock cycle is especially important when looking for ancient biosignatures on Mars, as virtually all of the remnants of Earth’s oldest biosphere are preserved in the sedimentary rocks that formed in this way.”

Finding habitable places on Mars is Curiosity’s primary mission, while its new cousin Perseverance is exploring Jezero Crater for signs of the most ancient life. Perseverance will help the Mars sample return mission to ferry rocks and potential biosignatures back to Earth for detailed analysis.

“This article describes the discovery of a discrepancy in the sequence of sedimentary rocks on Mars. A mismatch represents a gap in deposition time between rock sequences,” Watkins told Eos of the work.

This discrepancy is significant, she says, because it shows the timing of the transition between the deposition of older and younger rocks, between different ecological “regimes” contrasting with lacustrine rocks and newer eolian rocks.

“In this case, it separates rocks that are indicative of a time when a lake existed in Gale Crater and an overlying sequence of rocks that is indicative of a time when the climate was much drier, leading to the formation of aeolian sand dunes. Watkins added.

Watkins, also the first black woman to fly a sustained space mission, may be tasked with doing planetary geology on another world. The astronaut is among the staff assigned to future missions for the Artemis program, which aims to send boots to the moon in the late 2020s.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) and on facebook (will open in a new tab).

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