Curiosity completes first test of Martian soil

4 December 2012
By Rachael Fergusson
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Scoop marks in the sand at ‘Rocknest’

Scoop marks in the sand at ‘Rocknest’

Credit: Nasa

Nasa’s Curiosity rover has completed its first test of Martian soil but found no definitive evidence of signs that the red planet could support life.

Nasa said Curiosity used its full array of instruments to analyse Martian soil for the first time and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulphur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in the samples.

The soil at Curiosity's landing site appeared similar to that found in regions visited by other Mars spacecraft, Nasa said.

Curiosity, a one-tonne, six-wheeled vehicle, landed in Gale Crater near the Martian equator in August. Its two-year mission is aimed at determining whether or not the planet, most like Earth, could have hosted microbial life. Curiosity’s main destination is Mount Sharp, a towering mound of layered rock rising from the floor of Gale Crater.

Nasa said the soil sample analysed by Curiosity came from a drift of windblown dust and sand called “Rocknest.” The site lies in a relatively flat part of Gale Crater.

Curiosity’s laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM used three methods to analyse gases given off from the dusty sand when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds – carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life.

"We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater," said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The rover did find a simple carbon compound, but scientists have yet to determine whether it is native to the red planet, or came from elsewhere.

Scientists think the best chance of finding complex carbon is at Mount Sharp. Curiosity will not trek there until early next year.

The latest findings were reported at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Nasa also reported at the meeting an update on Nasa’s Voyager 1 spacecraft. The spacecraft has entered a new region at the edge of the solar system and is close to leaving it forever.

Scientists have dubbed this region the "magnetic highway" and it is the last stop before interstellar space, or the space between stars.

Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 launched 35 years ago on a tour of the outer planets. Afterwards, both spacecraft continued to hurtle toward the fringes of the solar system.

Mission chief scientist Ed Stone says it is unknown when Voyager 1 will finally break through to interstellar space. Once that happens, it will be the first manmade object to leave the solar system.

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