27 September 2013

Curiosity Gets The First ‘Soil Scoop’ On Martian Water Discovery

Image Caption: On Sol 84 (Oct. 31, 2012), NASA's Curiosity rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture this set of 55 high-resolution images, which were stitched together to create this full-color self-portrait of the rover at "Rocknest." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems 

Curiosity has added another huge discovery to its repertoire, as scientists report finding water in the NASA rover’s first soil scoop taken on the Martian surface.

The latest finding, published in the journal Science, shows that the rover’s first scoop of soil contained fine materials that were several percent water by weight.

“One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Laurie Leshin, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Dean of Science and lead author of the study. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.”

Scientists used the rover’s scoop to collect dust, dirt, and finely grained soil from a patch known as “Rocknest” on the Martian surface. Researchers took samples from this scoop and placed them in Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), after which the soil was heated to 1535 degrees Fahrenheit.

The analysis revealed that the compound contained chlorine and oxygen, as well as carbonate materials, which form in the presence of water. The scientists believe that this site suggests more global distribution across the Red Planet.

“This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments,” stated Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical, and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding of surface processes and the action of water on Mars.”

SAM also analyzed ratios of isotopes of hydrogen and carbon in the released water and carbon dioxide. Isotopes are variants of the same chemical element with different numbers of neutrons. The instrument found that the ratio of isotopes in the soil is similar to that found in the atmosphere analyzed earlier by Curiosity, which indicates that the surface soil has interacted heavily with the atmosphere.

“The isotopic ratios, including hydrogen-to-deuterium ratios and carbon isotopes, tend to support the idea that as the dust is moving around the planet, it’s reacting with some of the gases from the atmosphere,” Leshin said. “This is the first solid sample that we’ve analyzed with the instruments on Curiosity. It’s the very first scoop of stuff that’s been fed into the analytical suite. Although this is only the beginning of the story, what we’ve learned is substantial.”

She said that a scoop of this soil is basically a microscopic Mars rock collection, adding that by learning about it in any one place is like learning about the entire planet. This means that future human explorers will be able to use methods to obtain water from the Martian surface.

“We now know there should be abundant, easily accessible water on Mars,” said Leshin. “When we send people, they could scoop up the soil anywhere on the surface, heat it just a bit, and obtain water.”

Read more:  NASA’s Curiosity detects no methane on Mars, ruling out life on Mars


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