NASA's SUV-sized Mars rover now has the ability to check for possible ingredients or signatures of life. The U.S. space agency recently approved a new instrument for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that can closely study carbon-containing compounds, if any show up in the dozens of planned soil and rock samples.
The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument will carry out the initial search for organic compounds once MSL lands in 2012. A robotic arm on the rover will scoop soil and drill rocks for samples, and a separate device deposits the samples in a carousel-like device containing 74 tiny tubes. Each filled tube then gets a turn inside an oven that bakes the sample material and releases gases for SAM to analyze.
"Our experiment preserves information on how these molecules formed," said Jennifer Eigenbrode, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "What we'll get are key observations that tell us about organic carbon sources and processing on Mars -- shedding light on the planet's carbon cycle."
But heating normally breaks down carbon bonds and destroys molecular information. Eigenbrode found a solution in the form of tetramethylammonium hydroxide in methanol (TMAH), a chemical that can preserve a sample's molecular structure despite heating -- and can also survive the higher radiation levels on Mars.
Such experiments should help MSL figure out if conditions on Mars look good for life, even if they aren't designed to directly identify past or present life. Let's just hope that this rover survives its descent and doesn't end up mired in a Martian sand trap.
That's very good news's. If it was on the Phoenix Lander then these little things crawling around in the microscopic imager where the Phoenix science team said has all the nutrients to sustain life may have been tagged as having life bearing carbon.
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I cant wait till the MSL lands on Mars and starts exploring!!! The power generator on this thing will have a lifespan of 14 years or more!!!! So just all the previous mars rover missions this one has the potential to last for years and years and years!!!!
Though not all of our Mars missions have panned out, those that have sure have gone a long ways towards making up for the flops! And I'm hoping the MSL does even better than the current twin rovers we have on the Red Planet -- and that's going to be a difficult challenge for it, given that the twin rovers have far exceeded their "use-by" date (even if one of them is stuck in the sand now).
I hope the MSL does the groundwork for us to establish, once and for all, whether or not Mars has or ever has had life, even in its most basic form. (Well, okay; some will *never* acknowledge alien life -- even if an flying saucer landed in their back yard and little green men came out!)
Our space program sure good use another feel-good boost anyway. . . .