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THE SCIENCE OF GATHERING DUST

As the sols slip by on Mars and the rovers do their work, one method of science investigation will gather dust — and that's a good thing.

The Magnetic Properties Experiment on the Mars Exploration Rover mission will collect dust from the atmosphere and rocks on Mars for study by the rovers' science instruments. The Viking and Pathfinder missions established that most of the dust on Mars is magnetic. But neither mission identified the mineral that causes the magnetism. It is an important point. Mars is full of oxidized iron. There are magnetic minerals that can form from the interaction of iron in water. So is Mars dust chock full of minerals that have been freeze-dried from ancient water? Or does it contain magnetic minerals that have been left behind by ancient volcanic processes? Are there a variety of magnetized minerals? The Mars Rover magnets will try to answer these questions.

Each rover carries three different sets of magnets. Two capture and filter magnets are located at the front of the rover near the base of the Pancam mast. A sweep magnet is next to the Pancam calibration target on the solar panel deck. Four RAT magnets are located inside the Rock Abrasion Tool.

The capture magnet is designed to be as strong as possible. It will attract both strong and weak magnetic dust from the martian atmosphere. The filter magnet is weaker. These different magnetic strengths allow scientists to compare the patterns and properties of the dust that accumulates. As the rovers' move across the martian landscape, the capture and filter magnets will be examined periodically by the Pancam camera and Microscopic Imager. When scientists start to see a significant dust build up, they will use the Mössbauer Spectrometer to determine the types of iron-bearing minerals that may be present. They will use the Alpha-Particle-X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) to determine the elemental composition of the dust. Spectra from the two science instruments will reveal what the magnetic particles are made of.

The sweep magnet is a strong, ring-shaped magnet with a center that is non-magnetic. It will help scientists to determine if the distribution of microcrystalline minerals from dust particle to dust particle is the same or different. If it his different, some particles of dust may turn out to be completely non-magnetic. These are the particles that scientists are looking for at the center of the sweep magnet. Each time the Pancam checks its calibration target, it will also image the sweep magnet so that scientists can see where the dust is collecting and study any non-magnetic grains.

The RAT magnets will gather magnetic particles from the dust that is kicked up when the RAT grinds into a martian rock. Pancam images will be taken of the science tool before and after it works on a rock. Scientists will be able to compare these images and determine the level of magnetic material collected.

Each speck of martian dust offers a kernel of knowledge. Learning more about these magnetic particles will help scientists understand the ancient processes that created the planet we see today.

Web content editor/writer: Pamela R. Smith

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