Over a year ago, the biggest Mars space exploration vehicle, or rover, yet built was lowered from a rocket-powered ‘sky crane’ into the surface of the red planet. Known to the public as Curiosity, the rover’s proper name is Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Built by NASA, the rover has the necessary equipment for doing analytical chemistry: a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, a laser-induced breakdown spectrometer and more. But the use of analytical chemistry techniques to learn more about the geological history and potential habitability of Mars has been going on for decades. And whether it’s sending a lab like Curiosityinto space or examining Martian samples on Earth.
NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory’s drill.
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity drilled into this rock target, “Cumberland,” during the 279th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars (May 19, 2013) and collected a powdered sample of material from the rock’s interior.
This graphic shows the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, one of the tools within the Sample Analysis at Mars laboratory on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. By measuring absorption of light at specific wavelengths, it measures concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor in Mars’ atmosphere.
This graphic shows tenfold spiking in the abundance of methane in the Martian atmosphere surrounding NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, as detected by a series of measurements made with the Tunable Laser Spectrometer instrument in the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars laboratory suite.
Data graphed here are examples from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory’s detection of Martian organics in a sample of powder that the drill on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover collected from a rock target called “Cumberland.”
This graphic offers comparisons between the amount of an organic chemical named chlorobenzene detected in the “Cumberland” rock sample and amounts of it in samples from three other Martian surface targets analyzed by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover
This illustration portrays some of the reasons why finding organic chemicals on Mars is challenging. Whatever organic chemicals may be produced on Mars or delivered to Mars face several possible modes of being transformed or destroyed.
“This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”
Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory a dozen times in a 20-month period to sniff methane in the atmosphere. During two of those months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion. Before and after that, readings averaged only one-tenth that level.