Martian Mystery: What Has Curiosity Discovered?
There’s some indication that the Curiosity Rover has found something significant in its recent testing of Martian soil samples:
Science isn’t something that just happens overnight. It takes many measurements, oodles of analysis, re-testing and re-analysis before any groundbreaking announcement can be made.
So, on the surface of Mars, inside Gale Crater on a plain called Aeolis Palus, our tenacious six-wheeled Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is doing cutting-edge laboratory work on an alien world and mission scientists are itching to announce a “historic” discovery.
“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” John Grotzinger, lead scientist of the MSL mission, said in an interview with NPR.
But what is he referring to and why all the secrecy?
For the past few weeks, rover Curiosity has been busily scooping dirt from a sandy ridge in a geologically interesting location called “Rocknest.” Using a little scooper attached to its instrument-laden robotic arm, Curiosity has been carefully digging, shaking and dumping the fine soil grains into its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments.
Recently, NASA announced some results from SAM after analyzing samples of Mars air. Interestingly, clues as to Martian atmospheric history were uncovered. Also, mission scientists announced an apparent dearth of methane in the air — a result that undoubtedly frustrated many hoping for the detection of the gas that may, ultimately, reveal the presence of sub-surface microbial life.
It appears that SAM has made yet another profound discovery… but mission scientists are keeping quiet for the time being.One of the prime mission objectives is for Curiosity is to understand the past and current habitability for life on the Red Planet. Curiosity can not directly detect the presence of Mars life, but it has been kitted-out with miniature laboratories capable of not only establishing what materials soil samples contain, but also whether the Mars soil contains carbon-laden organic molecules.
Should Curiosity detect these organics, the mission will have confirmed the presence of the building blocks of life on the surface of Mars. This does not, however, infer the genesis of life on Mars, it just means that some of the ingredients are there.
According to this NPR article, Grotzinger refers to the SAM data as being the source of the excitement. Indeed, one of the instrument’s objectives is to address “carbon chemistry through a search for organic compounds, the chemical state of light elements other than carbon, and isotopic tracers of planetary change,” according to the JPL mission site.
Might these data indicate the detection of organic chemistry? This would certainly be “historic” news. Also, this would back up the Viking landers’ likely discovery of organics in the 1970s – a result that could only be confirmed after Mars lander Phoenix made the groundbreaking 2008 discovery that the Martian surface is laced with perchorates.
This is all speculation, of course, until the announcement is made but it certainly sounds like there’s something exciting brewing over at JPL. Stay tuned.