NASA’s InSight lander has been headline news in recent weeks, as it continues to send back clear images of the rocky and unforgiving surface of Mars. However, the previous exploration robot sent to roam the red planet, the Curiosity rover, has been beaming back invaluable data for years, giving scientists a glimpse into the Martian landscape. Unlikely as it may seem, analysis by scientists at the James Hutton Institute has found that some soils on Mars are very similar to those found in Scotland.

Dr Benjamin Butler, of the Institute’s Environmental and Biochemical Sciences group, has found that the Mars-Scotland connection goes beyond each planet sharing location names such as Wick, Muck and Holyrood.

Dr Butler said: “Curiosity was sent to Mars with the aim of identifying whether our nearest planetary neighbour ever possessed conditions suitable for microbial life. In order to achieve this, the rover carries an X-ray diffractometer, which is used to identify minerals in the Martian soil. The soil minerals are particularly key in this mission since their composition is linked to the way rocks have been altered by water – with water being the key ingredient for life.

“Curiosity has beamed back digital mineral signatures of about thirty soils, and amazingly this data is open access, despite being probably the most expensive X-ray diffraction data in history. This allowed us to compare the Martian data to our own Scottish soil dataset, measured on a similar instrument, and to ask the question whether there are any soils in Scotland with similar mineralogy to those found on Mars.

“By comparing each of the Martian soils with all fifteen hundred Scottish soils in our dataset, we consistently find a group of Scottish soil samples that are strikingly similar to those on Mars. There are two sites in Scotland that have particularly similar soil minerals to those found of Mars, located on the basaltic soils of Skye and Mull. This makes sense because Mars is understood to be rich in basaltic rocks, but when we examine the mineralogy in more detail, we're quite confident that we have found a good analogue.”

A further connection between Mars and Scotland is that, along its journey, the rover has been overlooked by a location on Mars called a Siccar Point. The unconformity named after the geological feature in Berwickshire that inspired 18th-century scientist James Hutton’s work which established the concept of deep time. This theory would go on to provide evidence that Earth was much older than the 6000 years believed at the time.

“Whilst it’s fun to establish these connections between Mars and Scotland, this now provides us with the opportunity to use the identified sites on Skye and Mull to better understand the conditions of ancient Mars,” said Dr Butler.

Source: The James Hutton Institute