In what is a very significant development, NASA’s Curiosity Rover has discovered water on Mars. According to Laurie Lashin, lead author of one paper and dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.” The reason this is so significant is the main goal of Curiosity when launched, was to discover whether life could have ever existed on the Red Planet. Without evidence of water, the answer clearly would have been no.
In addition to water, the sample, which was heated, released oxygen, carbon dioxide, and sulfur compounds. The uniqueness of Curiosity is its ability to gather and process soil and rock samples. Curiosity carries a number of different instruments. In this analysis, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments which consist of a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer and a tunable laser spectrometer were used to make this discovery. According to Paul Mahaffy who works at NASA’s Goodard Space Flight Center, and heads up the SAM analysis, “This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments.” Mahaffy continued, “By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.” The SAM suite includes nine fluid-filled cups which hold chemicals that can react with organic molecules if present in the soil samples.
Experiments and soil analysis will continue with SAM also able to measure other organic compounds necessary to support life. With the discovery of water, Curiosity has already provided NASA scientists with the evidence needed to speculate about the possibility that life existed on Mars. The hope is that continued analysis will provide further information on what next scientists should next be looking to discover. All of this fact gathering will also be useful, should a manned mission to Mars ever be realized.