NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has sniffed the Martian air and now its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument has taken its first taste of soil. The microwave-size internal laboratory of the nuclear-powered rover received its first sample on November 9 and spent the next two days analyzing it. Taken at the Rocknest area of Gale Crater, the purpose of the sampling is to study soil composition with a special emphasis on seeking organic molecules.
The 4X4-size Curiosity’s SAM laboratory is a combination of three instruments, all of which were used in analyzing the sample. One is the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS), which heats soil samples and then studies the gases given off by ionizing them and measuring the ratio between their mass and their charge. The second instrument is the Gas Chromatograph (GC), which is used to detect a wide range of gaseous elements.
Finally, there is the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), which is designed to detect oxygen and carbon isotopes in order to determine the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in a sample. This one is particularly important because it addresses the core of Curiosity’s two-year mission, which is to locate areas where life existed or may still exist on the Red Planet.
"We received good data from this first solid sample," said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. "We have a lot of data analysis to do, and we are planning to get additional samples of Rocknest material to add confidence about what we learn."