Mars Curiosity delivered this week on the eagerly anticipated soil sample analysis, sniffing out water, sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients. The rover examined the sample with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and 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. By the way, the water seen by SAM was not wet but bound as molecules to grains of sand or dust. Interestingly, the amount measured was higher than anticipated.
Although SAM can detect organic compounds, none were found with the exception of chlorinated methane. NASA cautions that while the chlorine part was definitely Martian, the carbon in this one-carbon organic molecule may have been brought to Mars by the rover.
“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.
CheMin’s examination of Rocknest samples found the sandy soil composed of about half common volcanic minerals mixed with other rocky materials including a substantial amount of small bits of glass.
Carbon from Earth may not have been all Curiosity brought from home. About 250,000 bacterial spores – a tiny but not negligible number - throughout the rover are assumed to have survived the landing, NASA officials say, according to a September article in the LA Times. Nearly all of them are believed to have perished within minutes of exposure to bitter cold, intense ultraviolet radiation and an atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide. Still, some bacteria have survived worse.
SAM also found the oxygen-chlorine compound perchlorate, a salt of perchloric acid that’s used here on Earth in the making of fireworks, rocket fuel and some medicines. Perchlorate was also found in the Martian Arctic by NASA’s Phoenix lander in 2010.
For more details, check out the press release I used as my source. In related news, Curiosity has made the list of candidates for TIME magazine’s Person of the Year 2012. If the rover and her team rate high on your list of high achievers, click HERE to cast your vote. Voting closes on 11:59 PM on December 12th. Real-time rankings are HERE – as of this afternoon, the robot is in 8th place, ahead of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and The Higgs Boson Particle. Go Curiosity!
Last night our sky finally cleared again. Great to see the Milky Way followed by the rising of the waning gibbous moon. This morning, I caught the moon again around 9 a.m. in a blue sky off to the west. Tonight the moon rises about an hour later and will come up alongside Leo’s brightest star Regulus. If you’re out around 11 o’clock you’ll see it in a dark sky; look again Wednesday morning between sunrise and 10 a.m. and you’ll see it in full daylight, too.
The moon can appear both at night and day when it rises late at night and occupies the same part of the sky the sun does in the summer months. Like the summer sun, the moon stays up a long time before it sets, allowing us to spot in daylight.