The first scoop of soil analyzed by the analytical suite in the belly of NASA’s Curiosity rover reveals that fine materials on the surface of Mars contain several percent water by weight. Image © NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Above image: The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite found water in the dust, dirt and fine soil from the Rocknest site on Mars. (This file photo shows trenches Curiosity dug in October 2012.)
The results were published in Science as one article in a five-paper special section on the Curiosity mission.
“One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Laurie Leshin, lead author of one paper and dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.” The sample also released significant carbon dioxide, oxygen and sulfur compounds when heated.
The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite, prior to its installation on the Curiosity rover. Image © NASA Goddard
Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on the surface of Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, charged with answering the question: “Could Mars have once harbored life?” To do that, Curiosity is the first rover on Mars to carry equipment for gathering and processing samples of rock and soil. One of those instruments was employed in the current research: the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, which includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer and a tunable laser spectrometer. These tools enable SAM to identify a wide range of chemical compounds and determine the ratios of different isotopes of key elements.
“This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments,” said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.”
Mosaic image of Curiosity. Image © NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
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