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Although researchers have determined the ages of rocks from other planetary bodies, the actual experiments—like analyzing meteorites and moon rocks—have always been done on Earth.
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"MSL instruments weren't designed for this purpose, and we weren't sure if the experiment was going to work, but the fact that our number is consistent with previous estimates suggests that the technique works, and it works quite well."The researchers do, however, acknowledge that there is some uncertainty in their measurement.
One reason is that mudstone is a sedimentary rock—formed in layers over a span of millions of years from material that eroded off of the crater walls—and thus the age of the sample drilled by Curiosity really represents the combined age of those bits and pieces.
"In one sense, this is an utterly surprising result—it's the number that everybody expected," Farley says.
Indeed, prior to Curiosity's geochronology experiment, researchers using the "crater counting" method had estimated the age of Gale Crater and its surroundings to be between 3.6 and 4.1 billion years old.