Damien Gayle – Daily Mail Nov 21, 2012
Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover has reportedly made a major discovery on the Red Planet – but scientists are keeping quiet about what it is.
The finding was made by the six-wheeled rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument in the Rocknest area of the Gale Crate, close to where the rover touched down.
SAM is Curiosity’s on-board chemistry lab and is able to take a sample of Martian rock, soil or air and find out what it is made of.
Most importantly, it is capable of identifying organic compounds – carbon containing substances that could indicate life.
‘This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,’ said John Grotzinger, chief scientist in the Curiosity team, in an interview with NPR.
Mr Grotzinger would not be drawn on what the discovery actually was. He told NPR that his team won’t be ready to talk about the discovery for several weeks.
The scientist subsequently confirmed to SPACE.com that the findings will be revealed at the Autumn meeting of the American Geophysical Union, planned to begin on December 3 in San Francisco, California.
The Curiosity team needs that time to check and double check the findings to confirm that their discovery is not a fluke.
SAM is a powerful set of three instruments onboard the Curiosity rover that work together to investigate the chemistry of the Martian surface and atmosphere within Gale Crater.
The instrument’s measurements will help scientists better understand environmental conditions over time and assess whether Mars could support and preserve evidence of microbial life, either now or at some time in its past.
Though SAM’s instruments would fill a laboratory here on Earth, they have been miniaturised to roughly the size of a microwave oven in order to fit inside the Curiosity rover.
Mr Grotzinger explained to NPR that he and his team almost made a such a mistake already during the Curiosity mission, with air samples analysed by SAM.
When the instrument took its first breath of Martian air, it appeared as though there was methane in it. Here on Earth, some methane is produced as a by-product of life.
But, Mr Grotzinger said: ‘We knew from the very beginning that we had this risk of having brought air from Florida. And we needed to diminish it and then make the measurement again.’
The second time they took the measurement, there was no sign of the gas.
Tomorrow, while America is busy tucking into roast turkey and treats for Thanksgiving, its interplanetary emissary on Mars will also be taking a break from its hard scientific work.
But the Curiosity team won’t be idle, they will be using the rover’s Mast Camera to examine possible routes and Targets for further exploration of the Red Planet.
A priority is to choose a rock for the first use of the rover’s hammering drill, which will collect samples of powder from rock interiors.
The next moves come after Curiosity completed a touch-and-go inspection of one rock on Sunday, then pivoted and, on the same day, drove toward its Thanksgiving overlook location, called ‘Point Lake’.
Although Curiosity has departed the Rocknest patch of windblown sand and dust the sample-handling mechanism on the rover’s arm is still holding some soil from the fifth and final scoop collected there.
The rover is carrying this sample so it can be available for analysis by instruments within the rover if scientists choose that option in coming days.
Curiosity landed inside a giant impact crater near the Martian equator in August for a two-year, $2.5-billion mission, NASA’s first astrobiology expedition since the Seventies-era Viking probes.
The rover has already collected several soil samples of Martian sand and dust from the Rocknest site, with its Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument discovering it bears a remarkable resemblance to Hawaii’s volcanic sand.
That instrument used an X-ray imager to reveal the atomic structures of crystals in the Martian soil, the first time the technology, known as X-ray diffraction, has been used to analyse soil beyond Earth.
Curiosity’s primary goals are to assess the biological potential of Gale Crater, characterise its geology and geochemistry, to investigate the role of water at the landing site, and to measure the spectrum of surface radiation.