Self portraits and when losing 40 minutes a day can mean the world

Curiosity is coming to the end of its time at Rocknest, the sandy area in Gale Crater where it has been sifting and examining soil samples and carrying out other experiments over the course of the last few weeks. Glenelg still remains the intended target for the rover, prior to it starting an exploration to the near-central mound in the crater NASA refer to as “Mount Sharp”.

Since my last update on 31st October, Curiosity has been using the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite to examine the atmosphere in Gale Crate in greater detail. SAM is a remarkably flexible and complex set of instruments, able to analyse air and soil samples a number of ways.

Earlier in the mission, SAM was used to obtain an initial sampling of Martian air “inhaled” at Bradbury Landing. This was subjected to initial analysis by the instrument’s mass spectrometer. Over the last few days, Curiosity has used SAM to further sample the Martian Air, subjecting it to more detailed analysis using a Turnable Laser Spectrometer (TLS).

The TLS shoots laser beams into a measurement chamber which can be filled with Mars air. By measuring the absorption of light at specific wavelengths, the tool can measure concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor in the Martian atmosphere and different isotopes of those gases.

This picture shows a lab demonstration of the measurement chamber inside the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, an instrument that is part of the Sample Analysis at Mars investigation on NASA’s Curiosity rover. This demonstration uses visible lasers – rather than the infrared ones on the actual spectrometer – to show how the lasers bounce between the mirrors in the measurement chamber. (Click to enlarge)

Methane is of particular interest to scientists as, while it can be produced by either biological or non-biological processes, it is regarded as a simple precursor chemical for life. SAM represents the most sensitive tool yet deployed on or around Mars which might be capable of detecting methane in the atmosphere. However, the task isn’t easy, as it is probable that if the gas does exist at all within the Martian air, it is liable to do so only in very light traces. Certainly, none wer found in the initial sample analysed by Curiosity’s TLS, as SAM TLS lead Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) confirmed in a press conference I dialled-in to last week.

“Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all. At this point in the mission we’re just excited to be searching for it,” he said. “While we determine upper limits on low values, atmospheric variability in the Martian atmosphere could yet hold surprises for us.”

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6 thoughts on “Self portraits and when losing 40 minutes a day can mean the world

  1. You don’t get many comments on the Curiosity blog posts, so I just wanted to chime in and say that I enjoy them a great deal. I watched the Seven Minutes of Terror (on three screens, yay intertubes!) and am a great fan of solar system exploration. But I don’t always keep on top of all that’s going on all the time. Your posts help keep me updated in detail. Thank you!


    1. Thank you, Marcus!

      Space exploration and astronomy are two passions of mine; There is always the temptation to cover more, and I’ll doubtless be feature other missions and activities which catch my eye (such as Dragon did earlier in the year). Mars is special to me, because of the “family connection” through Dad’s involvement in various things – and Curiosity is so fascinating. I really should do a piece on Opportunity’s hard work, tho!


  2. i used a gas spectrometer when working in a lab in Miami – gee, Miami seems like an alien world to me now that i am gone from there =)

    btw, finally answered your comment from 2 weeks ago – in summation – i think you should write an e-book about your experiences in VWs – it would chronicle and document this interesting time and your insight and perspective is always well thought out and nicely written =)


    1. Thank Ener 🙂

      Sorry, I’ve not strayed too far beyond this blog lately, so haven’t caught up on replies to comments (trying to sort out a load of half-finished articles and posts for this blog and generally fiddling around in SL!).

      Not sure on writing a book; there are others out there who have a far better perspective (and purview) than I …


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