First, if you didn’t get up (at 1:30 a.m. Eastern) to watch the scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the landing data came in at a 14-minute delay from the surface of Mars, here’s your chance. Trust us, you’ve never seen anyone get so excited about a low-resolution thumbnail photo; but you’ll be caught up in their enthusiasm.
Now that Curiosity has survived the “seven minutes of terror” required to actually land on the surface of Mars, it’s time for the lander to get down to business. Curiosity is the largest, most powerful and capable rover to explore the red planet. A key component of the rover is a robotic chemist called Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). SAM’s mission will involve testing at least 74 samples of Martian rocks, soil and air for clues about whether Mars may have once, or may currently, support life.
If SAM finds organic molecules (composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms), scientists will move on to the task of determining how those molecules found their way to Mars. These hypothetical organic materials could mean life once existed on Mars, but it could also have been delivered by an incoming meteorite. Contamination from Curiosity itself is also possible (although NASA has gone to extreme lengths to try to avoid such contaminants).
In attending the NASA Social event at the Goddard Space Flight Center, we got to tour a lab where SAM first encountered the surface conditions that welcomed her (yes, we’re told SAM is a she) on Mars. The large silver box with two round windows simulates Mars’ rather inhospitable weather (the average surface temperature is about -67° F and the atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide). NASA scientist Christopher Johnson describes how the box will continue to be useful even as SAM is working more than 140 million miles away:
SAM is an impressive piece of machinery, completing series of complex chemistry experiments independently (once the program is uploaded), and all in a “lab” that’s about the size of a microwave oven. To investigate a sample, SAM prepares it (pulverizing a rock, for example), separates the molecules, identifies the molecules, and then determining what volatile molecules (like water and carbon dioxide) and isotopes are present.
Sticking the landing on Mars is an incredible accomplishment, but now that Curiosity is safely on our solar system neighbor the exciting scientific mission can begin.