Despite rumors to the contrary, NASA actually does real, non-Parody science! And the famous press conference about Mars Rover happened today, and it was exactly as I predicted. Very, very interesting.

PASADENA, Calif. – NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples Curiosity’s arm delivered to an analytical laboratory inside the rover.

Detection of the substances during this early phase of the mission demonstrates the laboratory’s capability to analyze diverse soil and rock samples over the next two years. Scientists also have been verifying the capabilities of the rover’s instruments.

Curiosity is the first Mars rover able to scoop soil into analytical instruments. The specific soil sample came from a drift of windblown dust and sand called “Rocknest.” The site lies in a relatively flat part of Gale Crater still miles away from the rover’s main destination on the slope of a mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover’s laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM used three methods to analyze gases given off from the dusty sand when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds — carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life.

“We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Curiosity’s APXS instrument and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover’s arm confirmed Rocknest has chemical-element composition and textural appearance similar to sites visited by earlier NASA Mars rovers Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity.

Curiosity’s team selected Rocknest as the first scooping site because it has fine sand particles suited for scrubbing interior surfaces of the arm’s sample-handling chambers. Sand was vibrated inside the chambers to remove residue from Earth. MAHLI close-up images of Rocknest show a dust-coated crust one or two sand grains thick, covering dark, finer sand.

“Active drifts on Mars look darker on the surface,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. “This is an older drift that has had time to be inactive, letting the crust form and dust accumulate on it.”

CheMin’s examination of Rocknest samples found the composition is about half common volcanic minerals and half non-crystalline materials such as glass. SAM added information about ingredients present in much lower concentrations and about ratios of isotopes. Isotopes are different forms of the same element and can provide clues about environmental changes. The water seen by SAM does not mean the drift was wet. Water molecules bound to grains of sand or dust are not unusual, but the quantity seen was higher than anticipated.

SAM tentatively identified the oxygen and chlorine compound perchlorate. This is a reactive chemical previously found in arctic Martian soil by NASA’s Phoenix Lander. Reactions with other chemicals heated in SAM formed chlorinated methane compounds — one-carbon organics that were detected by the instrument. The chlorine is of Martian origin, but it is possible the carbon may be of Earth origin, carried by Curiosity and detected by SAM’s high sensitivity design.

“We used almost every part of our science payload examining this drift,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “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.”

That’s the text of the press release. Click here to see the pretty pictures that go along with it.

Comments

  1. #1 G
    December 5, 2012

    All of this is interesting in & of itself to those of us who follow space/science news. But I have one criticism to raise:

    A couple of weeks ago there were hints from various sources, some apparently from NASA, saying that “there would be Earth-shattering news.” To most lay readers that means “LIFE!!!,” and then the real news is a letdown. I was thinking it would turn out to be news of organic molecules that might be relevant to our current theories about the origins of life. Nope!

    NASA needs to stop the “dramatic” leaks and “pre-news,” and stick to more cautious language. For example it would have been better to say something along the lines of: “We took samples of Martian sand and obtained good results about its chemical composition. The lab equipment on the rover continues to work well. We are still analyzing our findings and will report in more detail at our next press conference.”

    Don’t even say “complex chemistry” until the actual news conference or press release, when the answers can be presented in enough detail that there’s no cause for misinterpretation.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 5, 2012

    NASA did nothing wrong. First, “dramatic” does not equal “LIFE” no matter how many people think that. Second, it was not a leak or pre-news. Third, the press releases that came out perfectly reflected the press conference.

    I’ve discussed this here: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/11/30/nasa-press-voyager-press-conference-voyager-will-announce-voyager-captured-by-alien-craft/

    Yes, there is a problem, but it is not with the NASA press office!

  3. #3 Doug Alder
    December 5, 2012

    When i first heard the results my thoughts were – bummer no organic molecules that might indicate the presence of life at one time, then immediately – well that’s good news as if it had shown that then there would be a moral dilemma in further exploration – particularly colonization, unless it could be definitively shown that life had been extinguished.

  4. #4 scidogs
    Minneapolis
    December 6, 2012

    we need to remember that these Rover Teams live in a bubble.
    i’m sure every pixel that comes down from Mars is a “wow” for them.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    December 6, 2012

    It is also, though, not a very good environment to find life or life-ish stuff. (That particular pile of dirt.)

  6. #6 John Ackerman
    PA
    April 4, 2014

    I am convinced that Grotzinger’s statement was the result of a finding of a lot of 12C, which can only be the result of photosynthesis – like trees. The only 13C ‘delta’ published has not been calculated using the standard method, but based on assumptions about oxygen isotopes. This is the reason for all the talk about ‘contamination’ of Curiosity. He was silenced by the rest of the team, because they cannot explain the 12C. He gave a hint of a protest when he stated at the formal meeting “science is proceeding at the speed of science”. See cycliccatastrophism.org post titled ‘Has Curiosity Killed a Paradigm’.