NASA Announces Mars Curiosity’s First Round of Soil Analysis
The take-away message? There’s some very interesting “maybes” but no definite “wows”.
A week or so after the misunderstanding about how “groundbreaking” these findings would actually be, NASA’s Mars rover team announced the results of their first soil sample analysis today. Remember that this rover is primarily an interplanetary geology lab, outfitted with the most advanced mineral chemistry instruments ever plopped down on another planet. So any hints of Mars one day being able to support life are going to start with eating a whole bunch of dirt.
- These first few rounds of soil samples are useful, but one of their main purposes is to clean out the internal instruments and make sure the onboard, self-contained lab is working correctly. The laser-eye and other instruments are cool, but it’s the stuff inside that will most precisely determine the molecules and elements that exist in Martian soil.
- Curiosity processed a few scoops of coarse sand so far, which NASA compared to the big salt grains on a pretzel, from a region of Gale Crater called Rocknest. The machinery is all working fine, and any contaminating substances from Earth have probably been washed out by now.
- The rover has found hints of organic molecules (a huge family of carbon-based chemicals that are the precursors to anything that could later lead to life), as well as a chlorine chemical called “perchlorate” (also found by a previous rover in 2008). Normally perchlorate would be toxic, but super-tough microbes could eat it, mayyyyyyyybe … if they also found lots of carbon-based molecules. Which they only have hints of. Got it?
- Otherwise the soil was a pretty unremarkable mix of volcanic crystals, which is not surprising on Mars, since it’s home to many volcanoes, including the Solar System’s biggest. They also found traces of water, which we knew Mars had, and isn’t sufficient for life by itself (even Mercury has water ice!).
- The next step is to continue checking this data to make sure - absolutely sure - that the chlorine and carbon aren’t from Earth. Then they need to see if they are just random leftovers from old meteors or dust hitting the red planet. Then, and only then, will they be able to say whether these chlorine-carbon molecules are special.
In the end, this finding is a big “maybe”. But that should not disappoint anyone. Because these early days are about proving that the mission is ready to proceed and that everything is working correctly. And NASA gets an A+ on that. We have 2+ years of experiments, on all kinds of rocks, waiting for us!
So keep your “Curiosity” engaged …
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has beamed home the first human voice ever sent from another planet, as well as some spectacular new images of its Martian environs.
The 1-ton Curiosity rover broadcast a greeting from NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, who congratulated the mission team for getting the huge robot to Mars safely. While the significance of the audio accomplishment is largely symbolic, NASA officials hope it presages a more substantial human presence on the Red Planet down the road.
“With this, we have another small step that’s being taken in extending the human presence beyond Earth, and actually bringing that experience of exploring the planets back a little closer to all of us,” said Curiosity program executive Dave Lavery, invoking the famous line late astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.
Complete MSL Curiosity Descent - Full Quality Enhanced 1080p + Heat Shield impact
Thank you Sheila!
Mars Rover Video
The interior of Mars holds vast reservoirs of water, with some spots apparently as wet as Earth’s innards, scientists say.
The finding upends previous studies, which had estimated that the Red Planet’s internal water stores were scanty at best — something of a surprise, given that liquid water apparently flowed on the Martian surface long ago.
“It’s been puzzling why previous estimates for the planet’s interior have been so dry,” co-author Erik Hauri, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said in a statement. “This new research makes sense and suggests that volcanoes may have been the primary vehicle for getting water to the surface.”
Coils hint that volcanoes, not ice, shaped odd red planet region.
Hundreds of large spirals have been discovered on Mars, and scientists think the coiled features are evidence of a type of lava flow never before seen on the red planet.
If so, the spirals would suggest that volcanoes—not ice floes, as other experts believe—shaped an unusual area near the red planet’s equator.
Athabasca Valles is a region of flow channels and valleys covered with terrain plates, structures that show clear evidence of something fracturing and drifting across the planet’s surface millions of years ago.
Scientists have been divided, however, as to whether the plates were made by the hardening of a massive lava flow or by icy “rafts”—much like Arctic pack ice—from an ancient inland sea.
A Hole in Mars
Credit: NASA, JPL, U. Arizona
Explanation: Black spots have been discovered on Mars that are so dark that nothing inside can be seen. Quite possibly, the spots are entrances to deep underground caves capable of protecting Martian life, were it to exist. The unusual hole pictured above was found on the slopes of the giant Martian volcano Arsia Mons.
The question of whether present-day Mars could be habitable, and to what extent, has been the focus of long-running and intense debates. The surface, comparable to the dry valleys of Antarctica and the Atacama desert on Earth, is harsh, with well-below freezing temperatures most of the time (at an average of minus 63 degrees Celsius or minus 81 Fahrenheit), extreme dryness and a very thin atmosphere offering little protection from the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Most scientists would agree that the best place that any organisms could hope to survive and flourish would be underground. Now, a new study says that scenario is not only correct, but that large regions of Mars’ subsurface could be even more sustainable for life than previously thought.
Scientists from the Australian National University modeled conditions on Mars on a global scale and found that large regions could be capable of sustaining life – three percent of the planet actually, albeit mostly underground. By comparison, just one percent of Earth’s volume, from the central core to the upper atmosphere, is inhabited by some kind of life. They compared pressure and temperature conditions on Earth to those of Mars to come up with the surprising results.
The paper is currently available for free here.