During the last weeks various rumors spread about possible amazing discoveries on Mars. Yesterday, NASA held a press conference to explain what was actually found by the Mars Rover Curiosity and at the moment there’s no evidence that on the red planet there are organic materials.
The Mars Rover Curiosity is equipped with instruments more sophisticated than previous rovers and it’s using them for more accurate analyzes of soil and rock samples. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (Chemin) are two instruments that allow Curiosity to perform various types of analyzes using different methods. SAM also seeks organic compounds, which may be the ingredients for life.
Other types of analyzes can be carried out by two other instruments, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (Mahli), an incredibly sophisticated camera, and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), another spectrometer using alpha particles to map X-rays re-emitted from the sample to determine its composition.
The Mars Rover Curiosity has used those instruments to analyze various soil samples from an area that has been called Rocknest. This is an area of Gale crater where the sand is very fine making the work of sampling easy. There, interesting elements were found but there’s no evidence of the presence of organic compounds.
Several analyzes confirm the results already obtained in the past. APXS and MAHLI confirmed that the sand at Rocknest has a chemical composition and a texture similar to other areas visited by NASA’s rovers Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity.
CheMin has allowed scientists to establish that the samples’s composition is approximately half common volcanic minerals and the other half non-crystalline materials such as glass. SAM has added data on the components present in much lower concentrations and their isotopic ratios, which may provide clues about environmental changes. water molecules were found bound to the grains of sand in higher quantities than it was expected.
SAM also identified perchlorates, which are compounds of chlorine and oxygen. These are compounds previously found at the north pole of Mars by NASA’s Phoenix lander. When SAM heated the compounds to carry out their analyzes, compounds of methane and chlorine were formed. Methane is an organic material but the carbon which allowed its formation may have been brought by the Mars Rover Curiosity.
John Grotzinger, a Curiosity Project Scientist, had made excited statements about these findings which had raised hopes that even traces of life had been detected. Scientists and common people get excited for different reasons and this can lead to an incorrect interpretation of what is said to a reporter.
In fact, the mission of the Mars Rover Curiosity is still in its initial phase and from the scientific point of view it’s good to have confirmed the discoveries made in recent years by the previous rovers and landers. Curiosity’s instruments have proven to work well so if in any areas on its path there are organic compounds it will find them.