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The smooth floor of Yellowknife Bay is made up of a fine-grained sedimentary rock, or mudstone, that researchers think was deposited on the bed of an ancient Martian lake.In March, Curiosity drilled holes into the mudstone and collected powdered rock samples from two locations about three meters apart.

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Cosmic rays are known to degrade the organic molecules that may be telltale fossils of ancient life.

However, because the rock at Yellowknife Bay has only been exposed to cosmic rays for 80 million years—a relatively small sliver of geologic time—"the potential for organic preservation at the site where we drilled is better than many people had guessed," Farley says.

There, the sample was heated to temperatures high enough that the gasses within the rock were released and could be analyzed by an onboard mass spectrometer.

Farley and his colleagues determined the age of the mudstone to be about 3.86 to 4.56 billion years old.

However, shortly before the rover left Earth in 2011, NASA's participating scientist program asked researchers from all over the world to submit new ideas for experiments that could be performed with the MSL's already-designed instruments. Findings from the first such experiment on the Red Planet—published by Farley and coworkers this week in a collection of Curiosity papers in the journal —provide the first age determinations performed on another planet.

The paper is one of six appearing in the journal that reports results from the analysis of data and observations obtained during Curiosity's exploration at Yellowknife Bay—an expanse of bare bedrock in Gale Crater about 500 meters from the rover's landing site.

Using the SAM mass spectrometer to measure the abundance of three isotopes that result from cosmic-ray bombardment—helium-3, neon-21, and argon-36—Farley and his colleagues calculated that the mudstone at Yellowknife Bay has been exposed at the surface for about 80 million years.

"All three of the isotopes give exactly the same answer; they all have their independent sources of uncertainty and complications, but they all give exactly the same answer.

Although the potassium-argon method has been used to date rocks on Earth for many decades, these types of measurements require sophisticated lab equipment that could not easily be transported and used on another planet.

Farley had the idea of performing the experiment on Mars using the SAM instrument.

That is probably the most remarkable thing I've ever seen as a scientist, given the difficulty of the analyses," Farley says.

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