Cosmic coincidence on the road to Glenelg

Jake The rock known as Jake Matijevic: Anything but dull

This is a tale of a wonderful coincidence that ties together Mars, the Canadian north-west, Scotland and 100 years of geology. Bear with me because it takes a little while to pull all the threads together, but it's worth it, I promise.

It starts with an object called Jake.

I wrote last week about a dark, pyramid-shaped igneous rock on the Red Planet that had just been investigated by Nasa's Curiosity rover.

It certainly looked cool and it caught the imagination because my report subsequently clocked more hits that day than any other news story on the BBC. Never mind wars, politics and the economy - everyone, it seemed, wanted to find out more about this unusual, 25cm-high rock sitting in a crater almost 300 million km from Earth.

When Curiosity approached the volcanic rock, there was never really any expectation that it would pique great excitement.

It looked like just another dull piece of basalt, so much of which litters the Martian surface. But the science team on Curiosity needed a target to try out the first close-contact work using the rover's arm-held X-ray-spectrometer, APXS. So the dark pyramid was chosen and informally given the name Jake Matijevic in honour of a recently deceased rover engineer.

APXS investigation The science team needed a target to start some close-contact work with APXS

The results of the investigation by APXS, and the rover's laser instrument, ChemCam, revealed the rock to be anything but dull.

The science team likened its chemistry to some relatively rare but well-studied alkaline rocks on Earth found on oceanic islands such as Hawaii and the Azores, and also in rift zones like the Rio Grande. On Earth, such rocks typically form from relatively water-rich magmas that have cooled slowly at raised pressures.

The Curiosity team compared their formation to the fractionation that occurred in the old colonial method of making apple jack liquor. This process saw barrels of cider left outside in winter to partially freeze. As the barrels iced up, they would concentrate the apple-flavoured liquor.

Likewise, cooling magmas under pressure will crystallise and concentrate residual fluids. Jake was a consequence of those residual fluids, eventually solidifying just inside a Martian volcano or in a lava flow.

Map of Gale Crater The rover landed in Gale Crater and started moving towards Glenelg. During the trek, on the 43rd Martian day of the mission, Curiosity came across the pyramidal rock

Well, everyone loved the apple jack analogy but a number of you got in touch to ask for the exact classification of the rock.

"What scientific name are they giving to the lithology?" you wanted to know.

Glenelg Glenelg in Scotland is enjoying being in the international - and interplanetary - limelight

And so I went back to rover scientist and petrologist Prof Ed Stolper, who had presented the Jake results. Could he provide one?

This was not straightforward, he explained. Although APXS and ChemCam will tell you which chemical elements are present, they don't tell you how precisely those atoms are arranged into the crystalline structures that make up the rock, and both this mineralogy and the chemical composition are ideally needed to assign a rock name.

So there's a bit of guesstimation going on here. From the chemical composition, you have to work out the most likely mineralogy.

As mentioned, Jake has much higher amounts of alkali elements, metals such as sodium and potassium, than previously analysed Martian rocks. And that has Prof Stolper and the rest of the rover science team leaning (with a lot of caveats) towards a classification that sits on a well-established sequence of alkaline igneous rocks - one that goes by the name "mugearite".

And this is where we come to the great coincidence.

Map of Scotland

If you've been following the Curiosity rover story closely, you'll know that scientists on the mission have been using names taken from Canada's Northwest Territories to label the places the rover is visiting.

The Canadian north-west has some ancient rock formations, similar in age, we think, to those found in Gale Crater, Curiosity's landing site.

Curiosity - Mars Science Laboratory

Rover (Nasa)
  • Mission goal is to determine whether Mars has ever had the conditions to support life
  • Project costed at $2.5bn; will see initial surface operations lasting two Earth years
  • Onboard plutonium generators will deliver heat and electricity for at least 14 years
  • 75kg science payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier US Mars rovers
  • Equipped with tools to brush and drill into rocks, to scoop up, sort and sieve samples
  • Variety of analytical techniques to discern chemistry in rocks, soil and atmosphere
  • Will try to make first definitive identification of organic (carbon rich) compounds
  • Even carries a laser to zap rocks; beam will identify atomic elements in rocks

The naming system makes it easy for everyone to understand what's being discussed when a particular location comes up in conversation. So, for example, the rover is currently making its way to a place everyone is referring to as Glenelg.

This name is taken from a particular rock unit in the Northwest Territories, but it has an even older lineage - one that goes back to a small Highland settlement in Scotland.

This version of Glenelg is found on the western edge of the mainland, right by the water channel separating the Isle of Skye from the rest of Scotland.

Now read what Prof Stolper told me: "The 'type locality' for mugearite [i.e. the place the rock was first discovered, or at least defined as a distinctive rock type] is Mugeary, which turns out to be on Skye only 25 miles west of Glenelg.

"The fellow who named the rock type [in 1904] was Alfred Harker, the most influential British petrographer/petrologist of the first third (or so) of the 20th Century.

"Given the nearness of Mugeary and Glenelg, I consider it to be a great cosmic coincidence that on its way to Glenelg, the Curiosity rover found a rock that can legitimately be called a mugearite!"

Life has a habit of throwing up such remarkable connections. Glenelg was identified and named on Mars four weeks before Jake was even seen.

Curiosity only landed on the Red Planet in August but already it has returned some truly exciting science. And to think we have another couple of years at least to go on this mission.

Glenelg The light-coloured tones two-thirds up this panorama from the rover are in the region known as Glenelg
Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Glenelg is not far from the tiny hamlet of Curiosity where weirdly a lot of cats have died recently...

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @ 1. hammybebut and @ 3. giovanna
    I think you guys are missing the point here. We do it not because its easy or because it gives us huge, real world benifits, but because it is hard to do...................

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @12. Indeed. Other benefits of space technology include satellite communications, GPS nav systems, microwave ovens, thermos flasks, weather and hurricane prediction, reactive sunglasses, smoke detectors, freeze-dried supermarket meals, shock-absorbing shoes... the list goes on and on and on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I think if you are naming rocks Jake it might signify you don't have enough friends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Giovanna @ 3

    I am no science buff but i realise that if mankind is to survive way beyond into the future that we must leave our planet Earth. These missions to mars are the first steps along that path. The world would still be thought of as flat and we would still be living in caves if mankind had your out look on research and developement

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.


    "such knowledge will have no practical application, nor will we be any better off than we were before. Mars is Mars. There used to be water, or not. There used to be life, or not. We may one day visit it, or not. None of it matters either way."

    Oh no, only the long term survival of the human race, nothing important to see here at all... Narrow minded fool.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    """The rock known as Jake Matijevic""""

    That's great! They gave a rock a first and last name. Was a middle name superfluous?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Giovanni you are quite correct. Last week they said they found a star trillions of miles away. Load of tripe, billions of £'s to do what keep these cranks in jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    As I was reading that I realised that I had once been to Glenelg. Well, not exactly there, but about 2 x 25 miles away on the way to Inverness about 25 years ago. Spooky.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    #3 Its funny how often 'pointless' knowledge or inventions become very useful indeed. Ever use post-it notes? Only work because 3M made a "useless" glue (not very sticky but never dries either) The tech in 'curiosity' has obvious applications for bomb-disposal, hazardous rescue etc but the original space race also led to the development of among other things velcro... which is pretty useful

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Sorry to disappoint but this is not a coincidence at all!!! To explain, I am a Geo-Historian, and can confirm that the Gleneig in NW Territories was named after the Scottish Gleneig precisely BECAUSE OF the Mugearite connection (renamed in 1912), so its an inevitable connection of place and paleontology once again - not a coincidence SORRY!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Wonder if the 'science is pointless' brigade consider the irony of typing 'science is pointless' on their piece of technology connected to the thingamabob that connects to the BBC that connects to all our thingamabobs.

    Somehow, I doubt they will be.

    Regarding the article, it is interesting, and very exciting news coming from Mars, the scientists have again done us all proud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I envy you your seeming certainty, Giovanna. Even our best minds don't know where these activities will lead us. Poor, short-sighted, you, seeking a life of perfect predictability. Please open your eyes...

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.


    2.5bn to find that the same rock exists on another planet as well as a Scottish island, however the island would be a nice place to sit and wonder if the same thing exists elsewhere...

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @3. Giovanna.

    Pointless? A planet within a reachable distance with a land area similar to the Earth's? That we may one day inhabit?

    It's missions and little steps like these that pave the way.

    Be assured, the knowledge learned both in staging the mission and during its execution will have practical applications, both here on Earth and for our species' future out in the wider universe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    @1 & 3, Honestly! Marvin the Paranoid Android had nothing on you miserable so and sos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It's a small solar system after all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    2.Eddy from Waring - "Since there are an infinite number of possible coincidences, it's not surprising they seem to happen all the time.
    They do spook our instinctively inductive reasoning sometimes though."

    Yup, right across the full gamut of the superstitious stuff people believe, be it homeopathy, religion, alien invasions, that austerity will make debt better when it palpably worsens it

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It is all very interesting but ultimately pointless. While it may add to the sum of human knowledge, such knowledge will have no practical application, nor will we be any better off than we were before. Mars is Mars. There used to be water, or not. There used to be life, or not. We may one day visit it, or not. None of it matters either way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Since there are an infinite number of possible coincidences, it's not surprising they seem to happen all the time.

    They do spook our instinctively inductive reasoning sometimes though.


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