Ever since the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in early August 2012 to begin a two year mission, the information being sent back has fascinated the world. The latest news, however, is not exactly what many people were hoping to hear. One of the main things that scientist are hoping to determine with this Martian mission is whether or not Mars could have supported life. Most of Mars original atmosphere is gone and it is only about 1% as thick as the one that is found on Earth. Methane, according to NASA, is a simple precursor chemical for life. On Earth, it can be produced by either biological or non-biological processes.
On board Curiosity is SAM, the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument. SAM is one of the ten scientific instruments on the rover, but it is considered the heart. SAM’s job is to look for organic compounds. Though it has not been done so yet, Sam will be analyzing soil samples. Scientists are looking for information about the potential for life on the microbial level on the Red Planet in the far distant past, before it lost its atmosphere.
The fact that SAM was not able to detect any methane in the “Rocknest” area of the Gale Crater where the rover is doing its analyzing has raised some concerns, but scientists are optimistic that further testing may provide more encouraging results.
“Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all. At this point in the mission we’re just excited to be searching for it,” said SAM TLS lead Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “While we determine upper limits on low values, atmospheric variability in the Martian atmosphere could yet hold surprises for us.”
According to Michael Meyer, Curiosity program scientist and lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, “Let me emphasize — these are the first measurements. We can look forward to more discoveries as the instruments are tweaked, the measurements refined and as we move through time and the seasons of Mars.”
Learning about the conditions that exist on Mars today, will help scientists to understand the conditions that may have existed there in the past. What exactly happened to the atmosphere on Mars may help to better preserve the atmosphere that exists on the planet Earth. Whether or not there was ever life on Mars or not, scientists are anticipating learning a lot about the past presence of water, the search for traces of methane and the possibility of life on Mars. With more than a year and a half remaining in this mission, there will be a lot of fascinating information coming out of NASA.