Breaking!

One of the missions of SiMF is to present new science that’s interesting to science fiction and fantasy readers and writers. But with a weekly schedule, rarely do we get to bring you breaking news.

Today, though, I’m writing this while listening to the NASA briefing about the Curiosity Rover’s latest findings (live from AGU, Noon EST, 3 December 2012). A few weeks ago John Grotzinger told NPR that Curiosity had provided some exciting new results.

Wild speculation ensued, of course, forcing NASA to backpedal: “not really earthshaking.” Which is what I’d figured: it would be something that makes scientists really excited, and bores the general public.

So what did they find?

Curiosity sampled soils that are much like those sampled by Spirit and Opportunity. This is important to check, to make sure that what they’re looking at is usual rather than something odd.

NASA soil samples on Mars
(Curiosity’s soil samples; image courtesy of NASA

SAM data: that’s what I’ve been been waiting for. Paul Mahaffy is describing the SAM results, and says right up front that they haven’t found any definitive organics in this sample. Curiosity takes the soil sample and heats it, then measures what gases come off. Mostly water vapor, followed by carbon dioxide, some oxygen gas (O2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

The deuterium to hydrogen ratio in the water was higher than it is on Earth. Deuterium is heavier than the regular isotope of hydrogen, so water molecules are too. My guess is that lighter water molecules would be more easily lost to space, so Mars ended up with more heavy isotope. (Ah yes, this was addressed in the comments.)

Oxygen and sulfur dioxide, plus other sulfur compounds were observed, and were also seen by the Phoenix lander. SAM did find organic chlorine compounds, but they can’t definitively state yet that the carbon is Martian rather than terrestrial. Mars is a harsh environment, and lots of things can break up organic compounds.

So: simple organics, but not conclusively. Signs of complex chemistry, including perchlorates. As Karl Schroeder pointed out on twitter, this has direct relevance to figuring out whether the Viking experiments did or didn’t find evidence of life. Perchlorates can break down organic molecules. The SAM instruments are much more sensitive than those on the Viking lander, and scientists have a better idea of what they’re working with and looking for, plus much better control of experiment planning. The ability to modify experiments based on previous experiments? Invaluable.

John Grotzinger ended the panel by reminding everyone that this is a slow process, and patience is necessary. The equipment is working well, and mission scientists are working to figure everything out.

Here’s the official NASA summary, and screenshots of the graphics presented. What do you think?

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