A recent experiment conducted aboard NASA’s rover, Curiosity, involved drilling holes into the red surface of Mars for mineral analysis. The results of the mineral tests showed that more than three billion years ago, Mars was a significantly warmer and wetter world. Having a warmer and wetter climate would have made Mars more habitable earlier in its life.
As reported in the Billings Gazette, the discovery was especially exciting for Richard Brown because his family’s business, Wyo-Ben Inc., based in Billings, MT, supplied NASA with bentonite that helped calibrate Curiosity’s instruments.
Tests from the Mars sample showed X-ray diffraction patterns that were similar to the Wyoming bentonite. That suggests the Earth and Martian rocks contained the same clay mineral called smectite, which is the principle component of bentonite and can only be formed in water, Brown said.
NASA reported that the rover found carbon, sulfur and oxygen and other elements present in forms that life on earth uses.
The Billings Gazette also reported that Brown’s involvement with NASA came at a very young age. He skipped school to watch every NASA manned space launch and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Eventually, Brown’s interest in clay and NASA would cross paths.
With an undergraduate biology degree and a master’s degree in plant genetics from Arizona State, Brown is Wyo-Ben’s vice president of resources. His brother, David Brown, is company president. During the 1920s, their grandfather cobbled together several Big Horn Basin bentonite properties. In 1951, their father, Keith Brown, started Wyo-Ben in Billings and the company mines bentonite near Greybull, WY.
Brown is a long-time member and past president of The Clay Minerals Society, where he met NASA scientists who later asked him for bentonite samples.
Wyo-Ben shipped fist-sized samples of bentonite to NASA when the Opportunity and Spirit rovers headed to Mars in 2003.
In addition to using bentonite to calibrate one of 11 instruments aboard the Mars rover Curiosity, Wyo-Ben’s Wyoming sample was used to test the rover’s drill under Martian-like conditions.
Dr. Luther Beegle at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, one of 400 scientists working on Curiosity, said using the Wyoming bentonite was a real challenge.
Because bentonite absorbs water rapidly, Beegle had to find a way to dry it out enough to drill into it under low pressure, very dry conditions.
After several failed attempts to dry out the bentonite via heat, molding into concrete and finally freeze-drying where the sample took up to six weeks to dry out, the NASA scientist was able to drill two holes into the bentonite before the sample crumbled.