25Nov2012

What Have They Found On Mars?

 NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has apparently made a discovery “for the history books,” but we’ll have to wait a few weeks to learn what the new Red Planet find may be.

Something big could be brewing on the dusty plains of Mars – but NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in Pasadena, Calif., is keeping mum as to what that discovery might be. It appears that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has found something on the Red Planet. AmericaSpace first got word of the news from #Penny4NASA when the website stated that “Earthshaking” news was on the horizon.

A recent soil sample collected and analyzed by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument apparently found something that has scientists at JPL all aflutter – but they are not saying why.

Curiosity has been using its robotic arm and its suite of scientific instruments to test out both the Martian terrain and atmosphere. What the rover as found could prove beneficial to the agency that operates the mission. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

“The Science team is analyzing data from SAM’s soil inspection, but they are not ready to discuss it yet,” said JPL’s Guy Webster when asked about what is causing all the buzz. “This is no change from the policy we have set with past results from the mission, such as SAM’s atmosphere analysis or CheMin’s soil sample analysis or the analysis of images of Hottah and other conglomerate rocks.

The scientists want to have confidence in what the findings are telling them before they present them outside of the science team.”

During an interview with NPR, John Grotzinger, MSL’s principal investigator summed up the potential discovery as; “…one for the history books.” Whether this means that past or present life has been discovered on the Red Planet or whether some resources that could be used one day by astronauts have been found – remains to be seen.

It may be several weeks before Grotzinger and company are comfortable enough to make an official announcement. This overabundance of caution is due to some potential scientific missteps that almost occurred.

Curiosity touched down on the surface of Mars on August 6, 2012 on a two year mission to seek out the clues for life on the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA / JPL

 It was recently announced that the atmosphere around Curiosity’s landing site at Gale Crater had very little methane in the atmosphere. It was almost announced that the gas, a potential indicator of life, was indeed found at the site.

The SAM instrument is comprised of a number of different instruments that combine to sample the Martian terrain and atmosphere. A recent statement posted on JPL’s website points to the possibility that Curiosity may have been actually carrying the “major” announcement along with it.

Although Curiosity has departed the Rocknest patch of windblown sand and dust where it scooped up soil samples in recent weeks, the sample-handling mechanism on the rover’s arm is still holding some soil from the fifth and final scoop collected at Rocknest. The rover is carrying this sample so it can be available for analysis by instruments within the rover if scientists choose that option in coming days.

Curiosity has spent the last few weeks studying soil and rock samples. The rover employed its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on its arm, to see what “Rocknest” was comprised of. Afterward Curiosity rolled over to another target “Point Lake.”

Curiosity is on its way to the spot where it will spend the Thanksgiving holiday, a location that should allow the one-ton rover a good overview of the terrain surrounding it.

In the coming days, Curiosity’s controllers will use the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) to scope out possible routes that it can take as it moves eastward.

Since its arriving on Mars, the Curiosity rover has exceeded the expectations of scientists and engineers. There is little doubt that the soon-to-be-made announcment will only add to Curiosity’s legacy. Photo Credit: NASA /JPl / MSSS

Depending on what this announcement is, it could prove inconvenient for the Obama White House. This year, the Obama Administration submitted its 2013 Fiscal Year Budget Proposal Request – calling for a massive cut, some 20 percent, to NASA’s Planetary Missions. This would see $309 million cut from the branch of NASA that handles missions such as MSL.

Moreover, witht the U.S. facing the so-called “fiscal cliff”, having a massive finding tucked safely under its belt? Could provide JPL with the ammo it needs to keep the accountants at bay. Until Curiosity’s wranglers make their announcement, however, we will just have to wait and see.

 The $2.5 billion Curiosity rover landed inside Mars’ huge Gale Crater on Aug. 5, kicking off a two-year mission to determine if Mars has ever been capable of supporting microbial life.

The car-size robot carries 10 different instruments to aid in its quest, but SAM is the rover’s heart, taking up more than half of its science payload by weight.

In addition to analyzing soil samples, SAM also takes the measure of Red Planet air. Many scientists are keen to see if Curiosity detects any methane, which is produced by many lifeforms here on Earth. A SAM analysis of Curiosity’s first few sniffs found no definitive trace of the gas in the Martian atmosphere, but the rover will keep looking.

Curiosity began driving again Friday (Nov. 16) after spending six weeks testing its soil-scooping gear at a site called “Rocknest.” The rover will soon try out its rock-boring drill for the first time on the Red Planet, scientists have said. Source: AmericaSpace  and  Space.Com