The Mars Curiosity Rover is the first of its ilk with the ability to gather and analyze soil samples “in house,” at it were. This capability has come in handy in a big way, as the adorable little guy has given us a chemical breakdown of Martian soil. “Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients,” were all present in the collected specimens.
The samples in question were collected from a place called Rocknest, a large dune made up of sand and dust located in the Gale Crater. Using the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite, Curiosity employs three methods to scrutinize and evaluate gases from samples burned in small oven. One specific thing that SAM is designed to look for are carbon-based chemicals, organic compounds, which “can be ingredients for life.”
Paul Mahaffy, the SAM Principal Investigator, said, “We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater.” It is possible that these elements are from Earth, having hitched a ride with Curiosity, only to be picked up by the ultra-sensitive tools on board.
Rocknest was picked as the first sample site “because it has fine sand particles suited for scrubbing interior surfaces of the arm’s sample-handling chambers.” Curiosity’s ultimate goal are the slopes of the Martian mountain, Mount Sharp, but this discovery confirms the findings of previous rovers, Spirit, Opportunity, and Pathfinder.
A first step towards determining whether or not Gale Crater was ever home to microbial life, this examination also employed almost all of the gear on board. John Grotzinger, a Curiosity Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology, said, “The synergies of the instruments and richness of the data sets give us great promise for using them at the mission’s main science destination on Mount Sharp.”