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Photos: NASA's Opportunity rover finds 'newberries' on Mars, may contain clay

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Knock knock — NASA's Opportunity rover has some Martian clay news for you.

Scientists said Tuesday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco that Opportunity — the solar-powered six-wheeler that landed on Mars in 2004 (and has far outlasted its original, three-month mission) — uncovered hints of clay minerals along the western rim of the Endeavour crater.

Steve Squyres, the mission's principal investigator at Cornell University said, "If you are a geologist studying a site like this, one of the first things you do is walk the outcrop, and that's what we've done with Opportunity," reports NASA.

Two outcrops of high interest on Matijevic Hill are "Whitewater Lake" and "Kirkwood." Whitewater Lake is light-toned material that science team members believe may contain clay.Kirkwood contains small spheres with composition, structure and distribution that differ from other iron-rich spherules, nicknamed blueberries, that Opportunity found at its landing site and throughout the Meridiani Planum area it has explored. Squyres calls the Kirkwood spheres "newberries." 

Clay minerals are desirable because they can hold clues about climate and help paint a picture of past surface conditions. The Associated Press reports that Opportunity — whose mission's prime goal is to learn about the history of wet environments on ancient Mars — will stay put for a few months before traveling south to an area thought to be rich in clay minerals.

On Monday, inconclusive findings from the first scoop of Martian soil collected by the NASA's Curiosity rover were reported at the AGU meeting. Curiosity's mission — managed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena — is trying to determine whether the planet's environment was ever hospitable to Martian microbes.

NASA reports that Curiosity detected water and a mix of other chemicals in the analysis, but no definitive signs of life.

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples...

Two weeks ago, a comment by the mission's chief scientist led to speculation that Curiosity had come across carbon-based organics considered an essential life ingredient. The news was quickly downplayed, changing from something that was "for the history books," to something that was simply "interesting."

With contributions from AP and Andrea Wang

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