CURIOSITY ROVER MAKES “EARTH-SHAKING” DISCOVERY—BUT MUM’S THE WORD

Gravel  deposited in an ancient streambed.  Could the latest discovery be related to the finding of organic materials?   Photo credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

John Grotzinger, principal investigator for the Mars mission, is uncharacteristically non-specific about what he terms as an “earth-shaking” discovery.  By way of explanation, he said the findings have come from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments which have begun analyzing the first soil samples in its onboard laboratory.

“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” he elaborated.  “We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting.  The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down.”

In early October, the mission announced that Curiosity had found evidence for a “fast-moving stream up to hip-deep” on a plain called Aeolis Palus within the Gale Crater where it’s currently roving.  This information is consistent with earlier orbital observations of an ancient channel cutting through Gale Crater’s rim, leaving behind an alluvial fan of streambed gravel.

Curiosity rover near “Rocknest,” a patch of wind-deposited soil that’s the target for the first scooping activity.  Photo credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the last few weeks, the rover has been scooping samples from a sandy ridge called “Rocknest,” shaking and dumping the soil grains into its SAM and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments.

There’s a strong possibility that organics have been found because that’s one of the primary missions of the project.  Also, the JPL mission site states that one of SAM’s objectives is to address “. . . carbon chemistry through a search for organic compounds, the chemical state of light elements other than carbon, and isotopic tracers of planetary change.”

If organics were found, it would be an important piece of evidence showing that the Red Planet was once more like Earth than it is today.

But we’ll have to wait a few weeks until the results are analyzed, checked, reanalyzed and rechecked again until scientists are certain about what they’ve discovered.

Perhaps they’re being extra cautious after having hinted at the presence of methane on Mars, only to find that the methane present came from Earth—the analyzing instrument needed to be flushed out before Martian air could be properly analyzed.

Sources:  MarsDaily, October 5, 2012    Examiner, November 20, 2012    Discovery News, November 21, 2012

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