NewsWorldThe five main discoveries of the SAM instrument aboard...

The five main discoveries of the SAM instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars – Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex – Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex – NASA

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Revealing the potentially habitable climate of ancient Mars is a key part of NASA’s mission to explore and understand the unknown, to inspire and benefit humanity, and the Curiosity rover has been working on it for the past 10 years. On its 10th anniversary, we recount five of the most significant discoveries scientists have made using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments. The SAM is one of NASA’s most powerful astrobiology instruments on Mars. It is designed and built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and its work focuses on searching for and measuring organic molecules and light elements, which are important to life as we know it. To complete this task, the SAM carries components that scientists operate remotely to study Martian samples. 1. Detection of organic compounds on Mars Charles Malespin and Amy McAdam, the SAM principal investigators at Goddard, strongly agree with the most significant finding of the SAM: it detected organic molecules in rock samples collected from Gale Crater on Mars. Organic molecules (those containing carbon) could be used as building blocks and “food” for life. Its presence on Mars suggests that the planet may have supported life, if it ever was. While the isotopes in carbon dioxide and methane measured during some sample analyzes might be consistent with ancient biological activity producing the observed organic compounds, it is important that there are non-life-based explanations as well; for example, this isotopic signal could be the result of an interaction between ultraviolet light from the Sun and carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, producing organic compounds that would fall to the surface, thus not requiring life. Overall, these results motivate current and future studies with the SAM and the entire Curiosity suite of instruments, as well as other planetary missions in search of evidence of habitable environments and life. 2. Methane variability Using SAM’s tunable laser spectrometer, developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California, scientists have detected fluctuations in the amount of methane present in the near-surface atmosphere, where Curiosity is collecting samples. On Earth, most of the methane in the atmosphere comes from life-borne processes and varies due to changes in biological processes, but we don’t know if this is the case on Mars. Curiosity is not equipped to determine whether or not the methane it has detected originates from biological processes, but the myriad of missions to the Red Planet continue to provide data in this regard. 3. Rock Formation and Exposure Age in Gale Crater Curiosity had only been on Mars for a little over a year when, thanks to SAM, scientists determined for the first time both the formation age and the exposure age of a rock on the surface from another planet. The rocks around the rim of Gale Crater formed about 4 billion years ago and were later transported as sediment into Yellowknife Bay. “Here they were buried and became sedimentary rocks,” McAdam said. From there, weathering and erosion fragmented and exposed the rocks to surface radiation, about 70 million years ago. As well as providing information on the erosion rates of Mars, knowing how long a sample was exposed allows scientists to consider possible radiation-induced changes in organic compounds, which could affect the ability to identify potential biosignatures. “The age dating experiment was not planned before launch,” McAdam said. “But the flexibility in the design and operation of the SAM, and the dedication of a team of scientists and engineers, allowed it to be carried out successfully.” 4. Delving into the history of water on Mars The SAM has also shed light on Mars’ wetter past and how the planet has dried up. Water is vitally important to life as we know it, and “multiple lines of evidence indicate that the Gale Crater rocks record a rich history of water,” Malespin said. “Part of that evidence is the presence of jarosite, a reddish-yellow mineral that only forms in aqueous environments,” McAdam said. An age dating experiment with the SAM and another Curiosity instrument (APXS) found jarosite hundreds of millions of years younger than expected. This finding suggests that even as much of the Martian surface was drying out, some liquid water remained below the surface in the Gale Crater environment, extending the period of habitability of any Martian microbes that might have existed. In addition, SAM analyzes provided information on the loss of Mars’ atmosphere that led to its long-term evolution from its initial warm and humid state to its current cold and arid state. Water, H2O, contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Hydrogen can be exchanged for a heavier form of itself, called deuterium. By measuring the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in its samples, Curiosity provided evidence for a history of hydrogen escape and water loss on Mars. 5. Biologically Useful Nitrogen On Earth, nitrogen is an essential ingredient in the recipe for life, but not just any nitrogen will do. For most biological processes to make use of it, the nitrogen atoms must first be “fixed”: freed from their strong tendency to interact only with themselves. “Fixed nitrogen is required for the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and protein,” Malespin said. “These are the building blocks of life as we know it.” The SAM detected fixed nitrogen in the form of nitrate in rock samples that it analyzed in 2015. The finding indicated that biologically and chemically usable nitrogen was present on Mars 3.5 billion years ago. “While this nitrate could have been produced early in Martian history by thermal shocks from meteorite impacts,” McAdam said, “it’s possible that something is forming in the Martian atmosphere today.” No finding from SAM or Curiosity’s other instruments can offer positive proof of past life on Mars, but more importantly, these findings do not rule it out. Earlier this year, NASA extended Curiosity’s mission to at least 2025, allowing the rover and its mobile SAM chemistry lab to stay focused on the intriguing question of Mars habitability. Original news (in English) Edition: R. Castro.

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