NASA talked tantalisingly about a discovery made by its Mars Curiosity Rover this week that could "get in the history books" but finding out what exactly that discovery may be will have to wait a few weeks until NASA has checked results.
In an article published on US public radio station’s NPR website this week, John Grotzinger, one of the leaders of NASA’s Mars exploration program is quoted as saying, “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."
According to Space.com, we will not know for several more weeks what these result may be and the meeting of the American Geophysical Union to be held in San Francisco between December 3 and December 7 is being talked about as the venue for an important announcement.
Curiosity has recently been analysing soil samples scooped from the Martian surface at an area NASA scientists have called ‘Rocknest.’ The samples are analysed by Curiosity’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) apparatus.
Speaking to website 20minutes.fr earlier this year, Dan Limonadi, one of the scientists responsible for the analysis of Martian samples said that the mission of SAM and Curiosity was not necessarily to find organisms which were alive today but rather to “determine whether Mars has ever been habitable.”
Patrick Coll, deputy director of Paris based Laboratoire Interuniversitaire des Systèmes Atmosphériques or LISA (Interuniversity Laboratory on Atmospheric Systems), which is also engaged in analysis of data from SAM, said on the LISA website, following media speculation that SAM may have found life on Mars, “Contrary to what you may read in some media, SAM cannot find living organisms, since the analytical laboratory is responsible for defining the chemical composition of samples whether from the soil or the atmosphere. Obviously if SAM detects or identifies organic compounds, it should try to answer the question of what may have brought these about. In that event, it would not just be for SAM to answer the question of where organic compounds may have originated, but all the instruments of the MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) cross-referencing their results to better understand the origin of such compounds, whether biological or otherwise.”
Integrated Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument for Mars Science Laboratory rover "Curiosity".
The SAM on board the Curiosity Mars rover analyses samples of the Martian soil and atmosphere. This includes testing for possible traces of methane and other organic compounds, the essential chemical ‘building blocks’ for to life as we know it. If such molecules were detected, it would mean they could have been produced by living organisms, but equally, they could have geological origins, particularly methane found in meteorites.
Recently, NASA thought it had detected such compounds but then realised it was a contaminated sample arising from the trip from Earth. For this reason scientists are being ultra-cautious before announcing any definitive results.
Analysis of the recent samples scooped up from the surface of Mars by the NASA Curiosity rover has been conducted 20 hours a day, every day, from November 10 to November 20, reports LISA. There will now be a pause in research for the US Thanksgiving holiday from today. Mars watchers will have to wait another two weeks for what may, or may not be, an Earth shattering, or should that be Mars shattering, announcement.
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