Squyres said, "In the last few weeks, we have gone from a state of confusion about the geology of the "Columbia Hills" to having real stratigraphic sequence and a powerful working hypothesis for the history of these layers."
For several months, Spirit climbed a flank of "Husband Hill," the tallest in the range. The slope closely matched the angle of underlying rock layers, which made the layering difficult to detect. Spirit reached an intermediate destination, dubbed "Larry's Lookout," then continued uphill and looked back. "That was the critical moment, when it all began falling into place," Squyres said. "Looking back downhill, you can see the layering, and it suddenly starts to makes sense."
Spirit has been examining rocks in a series of outcrops called "Methuselah," "Jibsheet" and "Larry's Lookout." Some of the rocks contain the mineral ilmenite, not found previously by Spirit. "Ilmenite is a titanium-iron oxide formed during crystallization of magma," said Dr. Dick Morris, a rover science-team member at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston. "Its occurrence is evidence for diversity in the volcanic rocks in the Gusev region."
Rocks from different layers share compositional traits, high in titanium and low in chromium, which suggests a shared origin. However, the degree to which minerals in rocks have been chemically altered by exposure to water or other processes varies greatly from outcrop to outcrop. The textures also vary. At Methuselah, rocks have thin laminations revealed by Spirit's microscopic imager. At Jibsheet, they are built of bulbous grains packed together. At Larry's Lookout, the rocks are massive, with little fine-scale structure.
"Our best hypothesis is we're looking at a stack of ash or debris that was explosively erupted from volcanoes and settled down in different ways," Squyres said. "We can't fully rule out the possibility the debris was generated in impact explosions instead of volcanic ones. But we can say, once upon a time, Gusev was a pretty violent place. Big, explosive events were happening, and there was a lot of water around."
Rover-team scientists described the robot explorers' activities today at the spring meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans. For images and information about the rovers and their discoveries, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/solarsystem/mer_main.html.
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