There’s growing buzz about data gleaned by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, specifically over the issue of methane detection on the Red Planet.
On one hand, methane can be geological in origin. But then there’s the prospect that the gas is biotic, or caused by living organisms — meaning it could be the gaseous residue of long-extinct microbes or even the output of Martian organisms alive and well today.
Toted by Curiosity is the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, gear that takes up more than half the science payload on the 1-ton rover. Though SAM’s components would ordinarily fill a laboratory here on Earth, they have been miniaturized to roughly the size of a microwave oven in order to fit inside the robot.
SAM’s duty is to analyze gases that are either “sniffed” directly from the Martian atmosphere (which it has done several times) or extracted from soil or powdered rock samples by heating or chemically treating the samples.
Provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, SAM is on the search for compounds of the element carbon, including methane, that are associated with life. SAM will also explore ways in which those compounds are generated and destroyed in the Martian ecosphere. [Mars Methane: Could It Mean Life? (Video)]
According to Goddard’s SAM website, determining the presence or absence of organic molecules would be important science results, as either one would provide important information about the environmental conditions of Gale Crater, where Curiosity touched down on Aug. 5.
If SAM does find organic material, the next step would be to determine the origin and the nature of preservation of the molecules.
But if SAM does not find organic material, a better place to look might be below the surface.
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