A University of Arizona doctorate student, Shaunna Morrison, became the first person to identify minerals on the surface of Mars.
For some time, scientists have known what elements are present on the Red Planet, but they have not known how those elements combine to form minerals.
"We actually, for the first time, really know what we have," said Morrison, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in the UA Department of Geosciences.
What they have is basaltic sand, made from eroded lava, similar in composition to sand found here on earth in places such as the famous black beaches of Hawaii.
Morrison said many people use Mars as an analogy for an earlier Earth. And to find out that there are sands similar to those found in Hawaii "is pretty exciting."
Morrison is one member of a team of scientists working with the Curiosity Rover to study the surface of Mars.
Curiosity collects sediment samples, either by drilling or scooping them up. A mechanical arm then drops the individual samples into something called an X-ray diffractometer, the first one ever sent to space.
Researchers, located 140 million miles away, match the resulting X-ray images to minerals located in the world's largest mineral database, housed at the UA. Because the chemical composition of those minerals are already known, it becomes possible to then identify the chemical composition of the samples.