A space-simulation chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., is temporary home this month for the Curiosity rover (a cooperation of the United States and Spain), which will land on Mars next year.
Tests inside the 25-foot-diameter chamber (7.6-meters) are putting the rover through various sequences in environmental conditions resembling Martian surface conditions. After the chamber’s large door was sealed last week, air was pumped out to near-vacuum pressure, liquid nitrogen in the walls dropped the temperature to minus 130 degrees Celsius (minus 202 degrees Fahrenheit), and a bank of powerful lamps simulated the intensity of sunshine on Mars.
Work has stopped on an alternative version of the instrument, with a pair of zoom-lens cameras, which would have provided additional capabilities for improved three-dimensional video. The installed Mastcam on the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s Curiosity rover uses two fixed-focal-length cameras: a telephoto for one eye and wider angle for the other. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built the Mastcam and was funded by NASA last year to see whether a zoom version could be developed in time for testing on Curiosity.
At a small ceremony held March 17, 2011, in Madrid, representatives of the United States and Spain signed an agreement for cooperation on the mission. Signers included Alan D. Solomont, U.S. ambassador to Spain; Arturo Azcorra, director general of Spain’s Center for the Development of Industrial Technology; and Jaime Denis, director general of Spain’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology. Spain’s Minister of Defense Carme Chacon Piqueras and Minister of Science and Innovation Cristina Garmendia Mendizabal were also present.
The specific work planned for this instrument on Mars requires more all-covering protective garb for these specialized workers than was needed for the building of NASA’s earlier Mars rovers.
The instrument is Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, built by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. At the carefully selected landing site for the Mars rover named Curiosity, one of SAM’s key jobs will be to check for carbon-containing compounds called organic molecules, which are among the building blocks of life on Earth. The clean-room suits worn by Curiosity’s builders at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., are just part of the care being taken to keep biological material from Earth from showing up in results from SAM.
Organic chemicals consist of carbon and hydrogen and, in many cases, additional elements. They can exist without life, but life as we know it cannot exist without them. SAM can detect a fainter trace of organics and identify a wider variety of them than any instrument yet sent to Mars. It also can provide information about other ingredients of life and clues to past environments.
Researchers will use SAM and nine other science instruments on Curiosity to study whether one of the most intriguing areas on Mars has offered environmental conditions favorable for life and favorable for preserving evidence about whether life has ever existed there. NASA will launch Curiosity from Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011, as part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s spacecraft. The spacecraft will deliver the rover to the Martian surface in August 2012. The mission plan is to operate Curiosity on Mars for two years.
“If we don’t find any organics, that’s useful information,” said Mahaffy, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “That would mean the best place to look for evidence about life on Mars may not be near the surface. It may push us to look deeper.” It would also aid understanding of the environmental conditions that remove organics.
“If we do find detectable organics, that would be an encouraging sign that the immediate environment in the rocks we’re sampling is preserving these clues,” he said. “Then we would use the tools we have to try to determine where the organics may have come from.” Organics delivered by meteorites without involvement of biology come with more random chemical structures than the patterns seen in mixtures of organic chemicals produced by organisms.