Curiosity Discovers 'Applejack Liquor' Mars Rock

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Meet Jake Matijevic, a seemingly innocuous chuck of igneous rock (meaning rock that solidified from a molten liquid) sitting on the surface of Mars inside Gale Crater, where NASA’s rover Curiosity landed two months ago.

The football-sized rock, named after a well-respected Mars rover engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who died in August, was the first good target scientists found for Curiosity to zap with its laser.

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So for a couple of days last month, fire away the rover did, pulverizing bits of dust and rock to expose what lies within. Scientists expected the rock would be similar to igneous rocks studied by previous Mars rovers elsewhere on the planet.

Instead, they discovered a rock that is much more chemically similar to an unusual, but well-studied type of rock on Earth that is found on islands like Hawaii and in continental rift zones like the Rio Grande, which extends from southern Colorado to Chihuahua, Mexico.

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So what’s the connection to applejack liquor?

Apparently, minerals in these types of rocks result from a process similar to what colonists used to make booze from apple cider.

Explains Curiosity scientist Edward Stolper, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology:

“You take hard cider, and the way it was made in colonial times is they would put it out in big barrels in the winter and it would freeze — but not fully, so you’d crystallize out ice and you’d make more and more and more concentrated apple-flavored liquor. “This is precisely what happens when you generate a magma on a planet. You generate magma by melting in the interior, it comes to the surface and, just like the applejack, when you cool it, it crystallizes. When it partially crystallizes, it generates a liquid that concentrates particular elements in it that are not in what’s crystallizing.”

In other words, take out the water from applejack and you’re left with concentrated alcohol. Take out some particular minerals from a planet’s magma, and you get a liquid that is very different from what you started with.

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The composition of the Jake Matijevic rock is “a very close match to highly

crystallized, or fractioned magmas, that occur in particular places on Earth,” Stolper told reporters during a conference call on Thursday.

“This is based on one rock and one has to be careful to extrapolate,” he added, “but it is something that although unusual on Mars, is familiar to us on Earth. We know something about how such magmas are produced.”

Here’s to you, Curiosity. Bottom’s up!

Image: The Jake Matijevic rock, one of the rover Curiosity’s first targets of study, has a history that more closely resembles some rocks on Earth than previously studied rocks on Mars. The red dots are where the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam)

instrument zapped it with its laser on Sept. 21 and on Sept. 24. The circular

black-and-white images were taken by ChemCam to look for the pits produced by

the laser. The purple circles show areas analyzed by the rover’s Alpha Particle X-ray

Spectrometer The picture was take by Curiosity’s Mast

Camera on Sept. 22. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS