Curious About Curiosity’s Chemistry Mission?

The Mars Science Laboratory will be seeking clues to the planetary puzzle about life on Mars, the Curiosity rover is one of the best-outfitted chemistry missions ever. Scientists say Curiosity is the next best thing to launching a team of trained chemists to Mars’ surface.

“The Mars Science Laboratory mission has the goal of understanding whether its landing site on Mars was ever a habitable environment, a place that could have supported microbial life,” says MSL Deputy Project Scientist, Ashwin Vasavada, who provides a look “under the hood” in this informative video from the American Chemical Society.

“Curiosity is really a geochemical experiment, and a whole laboratory of chemical equipment is on the rover,” says Vasavada. “It will drill into rocks, and analyze material from those rocks with sophisticated instruments.”

Curiosity will drive around the landing site at Gale Crater and sample the soil, layer by layer, to piece together the history of Mars, trying to determine if and when the planet went from a wetter, warmer world to its current cold and dry conditions.

The payload includes mast-mounted instruments to survey the surroundings and assess potential sampling targets from a distance, and there are also instruments on Curiosity’s robotic arm for close-up inspections. Laboratory instruments inside the rover will analyze samples from rocks, soils and the atmosphere.

The two instruments on the mast are a high-definition imaging system, and a laser-equipped, spectrum-reading camera called ChemCam that can hit a rock with a special laser beam, and using Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy, can observe the light emitted from the laser’s spark and analyze it with the spectrometer to understand the chemical composition of the soil and rock on Mars.

The tools on the turret at the end of Curiosity’s 2.1-meter-long (7-foot-long) robotic arm include a radiation-emitting instrument that reads X-ray clues to targets’ composition and a magnifying-lens camera. The arm can deliver soil and powdered-rock samples to an instrument that uses X-ray analysis to identify minerals in the sample and to an instrument that uses three laboratory methods for assessing carbon compounds and other chemicals important to life and indicative of past and present processes.

The three methods are an evolved gas experiment, which uses a mass spectrometer to look for potential long chain organic molecules on Mars; CheMin, an X-ray diffraction experiment to determine mineralogy; and an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on Curiosity’s robotic arm, like its predecessors on the arms of all previous Mars rovers, will identify chemical elements in rocks and soils.

In total Curiosity has 10 different instruments on board the roving laboratory, and test results from these instruments will pave the way for future Mars missions, and may provide insight in the search for life on other planets.

Image caption: Artist depiction of the Curiosity rover on Mars. Credit: NASA

Sources: NASA, ACS

8 Replies to “Curious About Curiosity’s Chemistry Mission?”

  1. I like this video! (Except for the dated music – I was almost expecting an animated avatar of someone like Brigete Bardot or Sophia Loren to materialize and provide commentary?)

      1. I so totally agree… one of my favorites. Unfortunately my only copy is on vinyl (Remember 33 1/3 rpm records?) and the cartridge in my turntable died long ago and I am hard pressed to find a replacement. So it goes…

  2. News flash for NASA: Mars was a habitable environment, a place that could have supported microbial life.
    If you set your sights low enough you cannot fail. Chalk up another run on the board.

    1. We don’t know that, and finding organics would establish at least habitability.

      Viking tried an end run on life, but the mass of experiments were such that the outcome was inconclusive. I do think it managed to establish the first evidence for habitability (here the primary energy, liquid water, organics) in an energy source, the amount of UV.

      The MERs have extended that with extinct water (say, blueberries) and more energy sources (hydrothermal vents). Phoenix found extant water (ice; likely brines) and more energy sources (perchlorates).

      If Curiosity can find organics, it sets the scene for sample return (SR) for extant or extinct life. Sine you have to spend many tries for microbiologists to learn how to grow microbes or send paleontologists to many places before they find fossil bearing layers, I suspect we are in for the long haul.

      I think they should try one other end run before spending money and time on a long series of SRs. Chemical selection for RNA is definitely a possibility for reasons theoretical (since we use it) and observational (since anoxic conditions enhance its catalytic ability so). They should look for nucleotides and their heteromers.

      Unfortunately RNA doesn’t fossilize well, so it will only see an extant biosphere.

      1. The Vikings showed a very active soil which could be due to purely physical/chemical reaction or life with the latter having a strong case in form of the Viking LR experiment deep analysis’ in the years after. Since the Vikings we only established the fact that there was once water on Mars – a fact which was not too surprising as even the Vikings already seen extant water(ice) in the form of morning frost!? The big question remains unanswered: why was the Viking results locked away and ignored instead of followed up all those years? Even MSL tries to tackle the extant life issue again with NASA stating it only aims to look for some diffuse past habitability of Mars in that big dust bowl wasteland called Gale Crater.

        Real good science would be to follow up the promising results (Viking life detection experiments) and not being sufficient with one negative result (Viking GC/MS)

        Mars exploration and the search for et-life could turn out as a real tragic failure when some day life will be detected by a simple follow up Viking experiment which is long overdue. 😉

  3. “Read my LIBS: many new sample batches.”

    I am pleased that they will have an MS that can look for complex organics.

    But I hope they are correct that their new pyrolysis stage will preserve those even in case of perchlorates or other thermally activated oxidants are present as they were for Phoenix.

    And I hope one day they can miniaturize an LS-FTMS (Liquid Solvent – Fourier Transform Mass Spectrometer) as they use in astrobiology to look for the spectral pattern of hydrocarbons of meteorites or chemical models.

    You can identify important reaction pathways and distinguish between chemical and biological evolution with that. There is an impressive paper on the Murchison, where you can see the pathways for molecular growth and the chemically selected distribution around that.

Comments are closed.