Rover's Big Discovery: Have We Found Life On Mars?

By Danny Choy on November 21, 2012 3:01 PM EST

curiosity mars rover
Curiosity Mars Rover (Photo: NASA)

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has been keeping itself busy ever since it landed on Planet Mars' Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on August 6, 2012. Now, NASA has confirmed that the rover has made a remarkable discovery "for the history books." Unfortunately, we will still have to wait just a little longer to learn exactly what this discovery is.

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Yesterday, NASA scientists announced that the Curiosity rover's extended robotic arm has scooped up a new soil sample that prompted SAM analysis. Curiosity's onboard laboratory SAM, or Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, is a unique suite that comprises of three instruments - a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph, and a tunable laser spectrometer.

The mass spectrometer is used to separate elements and compounds by mass for identification. Next the chromatograph will heat soil and rock samples until it vaporizes in order to release the gases for analysis. Finally, the laser spectrometer measures the various isotopes of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen in atmosphereic gases including methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. In a nutshell, SAM is tasked to identify any evidence of life on Mars and whether the planet possesses the elemental building blocks necessary to create organic compounds like enzymes and proteins.

Following SAM's major report, Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech Institute of Technology said, "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

Given the groundbreaking implications of SAM's discovery, scientists are cautiously double-checking the data to make sure there are no holes in the evidence before official confirmation. According to Grotzinger, a public announcement is scheduled for the upcoming American Geophysical Union, which will be in San Francisco from December 3-7.

NASA's Curiosity rover program is a $2.5 billion two-year mission tasked to find evidence of microbial life on Mars. The heart of the Curiosity mission is the precious SAM lab, which accounts for more than 50-percent of the Curiosity payload.

Curiosity first spent six weeks at a site called "Rocknest" to test its gear before moving on in November 16, Friday. In future missions, Curiosity will also be tasked to drill through the Mars soil for the first time.

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