First Results from Curiosity’s SAM Instrument

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory held a press conference today where they announced the first results of MSL Curiosity’s Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument. Organic compounds have been detected by the SAM instrument, they reported, but the science team are yet to determine whether or not the compounds are native to Mars or if they hitched a ride on Curiosity from Earth. The famed rover is currently resting at a place scientists are calling Rocknest, which is a few hundred meters from Bradbury Landing, where Curiosity landed on August 6, 2012.

Curiosity’s SAM instrument – an oven that cooks tiny samples and studies the gases that result – has indicated the presence of a small percentage of water and lesser amounts of carbon dioxide, oxygen and sulfur dioxide found in some “garden variety” Martian soil samples at Rocknest. Also involved in the detections was the presence of perchlorate, which was detected by a previous mission (NASA’s Phoenix lander). Of the water, the science team has found that the presence of a deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio that is five times greater than that of Earth – meaning water released from the Rocknest samples is “heavier” than the water in Earth’s oceans. This deuterium ratio will be helpful in determining how Mars wound up with such a thin atmosphere and perhaps whether or not standing water existed at Curiosity’s landing site.

Considering the organic compound detections, the science team has determined that the SAM instrument, one of the more important instruments at Curiosity’s disposal, is working perfectly fine.  In fact, they tested SAM several times in order to put to rest the fear that something might have been wrong with it. Curiosity’s project scientist, John Grotzinger, told reporters:

“The instrument, SAM, is working perfectly well. It has made this detection of organic compounds, simple organic compounds…we just simply don’t know if they’re indigenous to Mars or not. And so, it’s going to take us some time to work through that.”

When pressed for details on how to determine if the detected organic compounds were Martian or not, several team members said they were going to take it one step at a time. Several protocols were yet to be followed that would help rule out the uncertaintly surrounding the origin of the supposed organic compounds.

The scientists went on to say that they were proud of Curiosity’s development and that the “3 months of terror or tension,” where the team slowly and carefully tests each of Curiosity’s components for the first time, is almost over. Grotzinger and fellow scientists hope to test out the drill, one of the last mechanisms to be checked, sometime before the holidays. After that, Curiosity will be ready to head to Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater.