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Gemstone of the Year

Opal is the gemstone for those born in the month of October, but Mars scientists may claim it as the treasure of 2008. Inside the largest canyon in the whole solar system, opal minerals stretch in a pinkish cream swath, just to the right of a crater filled with dunes.

You may dream of jewelry, but this discovery has far greater value. Finding opal in the canyon means that water was on the surface of Mars about 1 billion years longer than previously thought. The long-term presence of water is essential to life as we know it. Maybe the canyon had rivers and small ponds for a few billion years. Could it have been an environment for life? Knowing that would be worth more than gold!

High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

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  • NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed Martian rocks containing a hydrated mineral similar to opal. The rocks are light-toned and appear cream-colored in this false-color image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera. Images acquired by the orbiter reveal that different layers of rock have different properties and chemistry. The opal minerals are located in distinct beds of rock outside of the large Valles Marineris canyon system and are also found in rocks within the canyon. The presence of opal in these relatively young rocks tells scientists that water, possibly as rivers and small ponds, interacted with the surface as recently as two billion years ago, one billion years later than scientists had expected. The discovery of this new category of minerals spread across large regions of Mars suggests that liquid water played an important role in shaping the planet's surface and possibly hosting life.
    Gemstone of the Year - Labeled
  • This image shows layers of rock stacked like a staircase, their edges extending diagonally from top left to bottom right and stepping downward from the lower left to the top right. At the far left of the image is an eroded, round crater filled with a row of nearly parallel sand dunes. To the right of the crater, a pinkish-colored layer of light-toned rock within the staircase contains opal.
    Gemstone of the Year

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