NASA: Curiosity rover analyzes Martian soil for first time
Published Monday, December 3, 2012 10:47AM EST
Last Updated Monday, December 3, 2012 2:35PM EST
The Mars Curiosity rover has analyzed samples of Martian soil for the first time and found compounds of water, sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, NASA said Monday, providing a more grounded update of the planet’s exploration after weeks of speculation and rumours.
The team stressed that while the rovers tools had detected organic compounds, it had not yet determined if the compounds were of Martian origin.
“We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater," said team member Paul Mahaffy.
Members of the space agency’s Curiosity team made the announcement during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
The samples were collected from the “Rocknest” region by Curiosity’s arm and brought inside the rover to an analytical laboratory.
After the samples were collected, they were heated in a tiny oven. As gases were released, the Sample Analysis at Mars suite analyzed the substances and checked for organic compounds – carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients of life.
The rover’s detection of the compounds is a sign that the rover and all its tools are working well, said John Grotzinger, the lead scientist on the team.
“The instrument SAM is working perfectly well it has made this detection of organic compounds, simple organic compounds; we just simply don’t know if they’re indigenous to Mars or not,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to work through that.
“What we’ve got is a globally representative material on Mars that turns out to be a rich repository of environmental process and history.”
Grotzinger also said that it was still very early in the mission and that the team had more work ahead of them. He urged for the public’s continued patience.
“Curiosity’s middle name is patience and we all have to have a healthy dose of that,” he said, adding that determining if the organic compounds are indigenous to the red planet is “well down the road.”
“What this mission is about is integrated science: there’s not going to be one single moment where we all stand up and on the basis of one single measurement have a ‘Hallelujah’ moment,” he said.
Curiosity is still miles away from its main destination, a slope of a mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover is slated to reach Mount Sharp next year.
The announcement comes just a few weeks after Grotzinger was quoted in an interview with NPR saying that the data collected from a soil sample from Mars will “be one for the history books.”
The interview sparked rumours that the team had unearthed data showing that life did once exist on the planet. NASA, however, acted quickly to reel in the speculations with a statement released last Thursday denying the discovery of Martian organics.
Dan Riskin, co-host of Discovery’s Daily Planet, said that while complex organic molecules indicative of a past habitable planet had not yet been found on Mars, the mission was still in its very early phase.
And the fact alone that everything on the rover was working well was already a huge accomplishment, Riskin added.
The rover was built to last at least two years, but as long as it keeps running, the team will continue to use it, he said. “It’s fantastically exciting that there’s a rover on Mars and its collecting samples of soil and its figuring out what’s in there.”
The Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August and is only four months into a two-year mission.
The rover is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration program and is designed to determine if the red planet ever had the environment to support small life forms.
The rover has a set of tools that will analyze samples of soil and rock which hold a record of the planet’s climate and geology.
Monday’s announcement came on the heels of another major NASA announcement last week, when the space agency announced that its Messenger spacecraft had discovered evidence to support the long-held theory that Mercury has vast deposits of ice in craters located near its poles.