MARS STORY: Organic Matter on Mars According to NASA’s Curiosity Rover
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MARS STORY: Organic Matter on Mars According to NASA’s Curiosity Rover
The Curiosity rover has found organic matter in the soil on Mars
Methane was also conclusively detected in the Martian atmosphere
Organic matter has been found on Mars in soil samples taken from 3 billion-year-old mudstone in the Gale crater by the Curiosity rover, NASA announced Thursday. The rover has also detected methane in the Martian atmosphere.
The search for life outside Earth focuses on the building blocks of life as we know it, which includes organic compounds and molecules — although these can exist without life. Organic matter can be one of several things: a record detailing ancient life, a food source for life or something that exists in the place of life.
No matter its purpose, these work as “chemical clues” for researchers about Mars.
Methane is considered the simplest organic molecule. It’s present in other places in our solar system that could host life, like Saturn and Jupiter’s moons Enceladus, Europa and Titan. And if life does exist elsewhere, it may be very different or even form differently from how we understand life on Earth.
The new findings are also detailed in two studies published Thursday in the journal Science. Together, the researchers believe these findings to be “breakthroughs in astrobiology.”
“We have greatly expanded our search for organic compounds, which is fundamental in the search for life,” said Paul Mahaffy, study author and director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The two studies build on and advance smaller detections of atmospheric methane and ancient organic compounds on Mars. Those detections either caused debate or lacked the context for understanding, the researchers said.
But Curiosity’s data are providing a clearer and more conclusive picture of the conditions and processes on Mars — and what it may have been like on the Red Planet billions of years ago, when conditions were more suitable for life.
“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”
Finding clues beneath the surface
We’ve been exploring the surface of Mars in hopes of understanding the Red Planet since NASA’s Viking mission in the 1970s. The Viking Project was the first US mission to safely land spacecraft on the Martian surface, as well as send back images.
And although hopes were high that the two landers and their instruments would detect signs of life or organic compounds in samples taken from the surface, that didn’t happen.
Decades later, Viking helped inspire the instruments on today’s Martian rovers. And Curiosity dug a little deeper beneath the surface, which is blasted with radiation, to see what stories the soil had to tell.
Curiosity sampled sites by drilling five centimeters below the surface in the Gale crater, which is where the rover landed in 2012. The 96-mile crater, named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, was most likely formed by meteor impact between 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. It likely held a lake, and now includes a mountain.
The rover was able to heat the samples to between 932 and 1508 degrees Fahrenheit and study the organic molecules released through gas analysis. The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiopene, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide.
They don’t exactly roll off the tongue, but researchers believe that these are fragments of larger molecules that were present on Mars billions of years ago. And the high amount of sulfur in the samples is most likely how they’ve lasted so long, the researchers said. Drilling beneath the surface, rather than sampling what was on top like Viking did, also helped.
Potential contaminants were analyzed and accounted for, so the results are the most conclusive yet.
“The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space,” said Jen Eigenbrode, a study author and research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter. Finding ancient organic molecules in the top 5 centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.”
Methane in the air
Over five years, Curiosity has used its Tunable Laser Spectrometer to measure methane in the atmosphere at the Gale crater. Before, researchers couldn’t understand why the little bit of methane detected in the Martian atmosphere varied. With five years of data from a single location, they now have answers.
There is a seasonal variation to the methane that repeats, which means the methane is being released from the Martian surface or from reservoirs beneath the surface. The methane could even be trapped in water-based crystals beneath the surface.
Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and it could have supported a climate that sustained lakes on Mars. That could even be happening beneath the surface now, the researchers said. The release of methane is an active process on Mars, which could suggest new things about what’s unfolding on the Red Planet.
Detecting this organic molecule in the atmosphere, combined with the finding of organic compounds in the soil, has strong implications about potential life on Mars in its past.
The Gale Crater was probably habitable 3.5 billion years ago, based on what Curiosity has shown us. Then, the conditions would have been comparable to Earth. This is also when life was evolving on our own planet.
Knowing that these molecules and compounds were present, then, gives new strength to the idea that life originated or existed on Mars and that more work by the Martian rovers can uncover the past.
NASA’s InSight Lander, launched on May 5, will land on Mars on November 26. Its two-year mission will explore Mars to see if it’s “geologically alive,” or active below the surface. For example, scientists want to know if it has “Mars quakes.” And the Mars 2020 rover, which is expected to launch July 2020, may be able to assist with one day retrieving soil samples from Mars.
“Are there signs of life on Mars?” asked Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. “We don’t know, but these results tell us we are on the right track.”
Rover snaps a new selfie
NASA’s popular Mars Curiosity Rover has sent back a new selfie from the red planet. The image shows the rover’s “head” peaking above the dusty martian surface.
“I’m back! Did you miss me?” the rover (well, actually its social media team) tweeted.
The selfie was in the first batch of images the spacecraft sent back to its mission team after the government shutdown.
Curiosity landed on Mars on August 6, 2012 at Gale Crater after surviving the much-publicized “seven minutes of terror” descent to the surface.
The rover was sent to Mars on a 23-month mission to hunt evidence that Mars could have supported microbial life in the distant past. But NASA said the spacecraft knocked that job out in 8 months — collecting a rock sample that showed ancient Mars could have supported microbes.
Since Curiosity still was in great shape, NASA gave it more work extending the mission and sent Curiosity into overtime to continue drilling samples of the surface and to monitor the environment.
Curiosity may be getting some company soon. The new Mars InSight lander passed what NASA called a key test on Tuesday — stretching out its solar panels. The panels will power the probe for at least two Earth years while it studies Mars’ deep interior to help scientists understand how rocky planets evolved. (InSight’s full name is Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.)
The launch window for InSight opens May 5, 2018, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. If it goes up that day, InSight would land on November 26, 2018, NASA says.
InSight will carry with it about 2.4 million names submitted by the public. “It’s a fun way for the public to feel personally invested in the mission,” Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator, said in statement. “We’re happy to have them along for the ride.”
New Mars 2020 rover will be able to provide sights and sounds of the Surface of the Red Planet
When the newly developed Mars 2020 rover lands on the Red Planet in February 2021 after embarking on a seven-month cruise through space, we will be able to hear sounds of the landing and the Martian surface for the first time, according to NASA.
“Not only is there going to be a microphone, there will be several microphones,” said Kenneth Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist. “There will be a microphone as part of [the camera system during entry, descent and landing] and we will also have a microphone on one of the science instruments that will allow us to hear sounds on the surface as we are driving around. So we will have the first sounds coming back from Mars.”
Microphones were included on previous Mars missions, such as NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander in 2008, but they were never utilized. A suite of cameras will allow us to see and hear what it’s like for the rover to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend and land on the surface. It will also be able to take selfies, although NASA isn’t disclosing how at the moment.
The rover’s mission is to seek signs of life on the Red Planet for two years. NASA is aiming to launch within a 30-day window in July 2020. If officials don’t have the rover ready to go during that short time frame, they will have to wait another two years to launch, said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
Scientists estimate that Mars is, or most certainly was, the most habitable planet in our solar system outside of Earth. Now, the planet is cold, dry and has a lot of radiation on the surface, which isn’t conducive to life as we know it, Farley said.
But after spending a Martian year on the surface, which is 687 days on Earth, the Mars Curiosity rover has collected evidence of all the conditions necessary for microbial life within the rocks on the Red Planet. There are clues in the rocks pointing to a once wet, warm planet with lakes, rivers and deltas, a habitable environment where life could have evolved and thrived. When the planet transitioned to being a cold desert 3.5 billion years ago, that life most certainly disappeared.
The new rover on the block wants to find that life and any other secrets hiding in the Martian rock and soil. It hasn’t been named yet because NASA wants to open that honor to the public.
Shiny new features
While the rover for the 2020 mission may look similar to Curiosity, which launched in 2011, it includes some exciting new features and proposed instruments from researchers in the United States, France, Spain and Norway that will enable us to see and explore Mars in an innovative way.
Using the same platform as Curiosity, the new rover has a nuclear power source that can last at least 10 years, and has several cameras. Mastcam-Z, aptly located on the mast, can zoom like binoculars and create both panoramic and stereoscopic images, while also determining the mineral makeup of the Martian surface. This camera can also make 3-D maps.
Besides imaging and mineralogy, a second instrument called SuperCam can analyze chemical compounds and detect organic molecules in rocks and the dusty surface from a distance. The researchers are also excited to have PIXL onboard, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer with high-resolution capabilities to map the elements in the Martian soil with greater detail and the best detection and analysis of chemical elements so far. Located on the rover’s robotic arm, these can investigate a piece of rock the size of a postage stamp to look at the structure, fabric, element and mineral make-up of Martian rocks, as well as identify and map the distribution of organic molecules. Some of those organic molecules could be associated with life.
Another spectrometer called SHERLOC will fire a laser at rocks in the distance and read the signals received in return to determine the elements and minerals within those rocks. This will give the rover an added advantage of learning more about the geologic environment it’s exploring, which will be about 6.2 miles.
The rover will also be equipped with a ground-penetrating radar called RIMFAX, which can investigate tens of meters beneath the surface it is traversing and look for unusual features like ice or brine.
On top of the deck is a weather station called MEDA, which can measure temperature, the speed and direction of the wind, humidity and more properties of the dust it encounters.
Last but not least, MOXIE will convert the carbon dioxide of the Martian atmosphere into oxygen.
Many of these new instruments will help NASA determine more about safely landing humans on Mars and this mysterious surface they would explore.
The new rover benefits from lessons learned while observing Curiosity and the issues that it has faced during its mission. The wheels, which are tougher than those on Curiosity after it faced issues traversing sharp rocks, are capable of digging little trenches on the Martian surface. A puffer will blow compressed air across rock samples so that the instruments on the rover can study it better.
This rover is equipped with a coring drill on a five-jointed robotic arm that can position anywhere in front of the rover to take samples of rock, according to Matt Robinson, Mars 2020 sampling and caching team deputy manager at JPL. It can use a percussive jackhammer-like mode on tougher rocks, such basalt on Earth, and a rotary-only mode for the weaker ones, such as mud stones.
Five different drill bits, which an engineer operating the rover from Earth can program the rover to change out, have space to store a core sample. They will then drop each core sample into a clean tube, use instruments on the rover to take a picture of the sample, seal the tube and then leave the samples in a pile so a future mission can pick them up. Because that mission would be determined in the future, there are currently no more details on Martian samples making the journey to Earth.
The drills can also upbraid the surface or rock if scientists want to use the rover’s instruments to have a closer look at the details.
Sticking the landing
Much like Curiosity, Mars 2020’s rover will use a sky crane landing system. In order to land the rover gently on its wheels, a parachute slows the descent of the vehicle after entering the atmosphere and the heat shield separates. Rockets slow down the descent until it is safe enough for the sky crane attached to the rover to lower it on an “umbilical cord” of sorts. Sensors tell the sky crane when the rover has safely touched down, which cuts the cord and powers the crane to crash land far away from the path of the rover.
Unlike while it’s on the surface and exploring, the rover’s landing is entirely autonomous, with no help from engineers, This time, a range trigger will be added, which helps the descent vehicle determine if it needs to open the parachute earlier or later than expected. It will also use a suite of cameras to steer away from unsafe landing zones. This enables the rover to land in a more specific destination or a tighter spot. This new technology shrinks the area or margin of error by 50%.
But where to land? Scientists have narrowed it down to eight possible landing sites. They want it to be able to land safely on a flatter surface that is surrounded by rocky terrain with the signs of habitability they want to study.
“We want a lot of rocks or rock outcrop, because that’s what tells us the geologic story,” Farley said. “These must date from the days when Mars was wet 3.5 billion years ago. Out of the eight sites, the first half are associated with surface water such as rivers, lakes and deltas recorded in the rocks. The other half are associated with high temperature water circulating through the rocks. On Earth, those are areas where microbial life thrives.”
Over the next couple of years, they hope to determine the final landing site.
“This is taking the first step towards what we’ve wanted for a long time,” Farley said.
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