Saturday, November 3, 2012

Analyzing Mars

In the last week, we announced results from both of our large analytical instruments on Curiosity.

CheMin characterized the mineralogy of dust and sand at the site called Rocknest.  CheMin uses x-ray diffraction patterns to measure the spacing between atoms in crystals, which are diagnostic of specific minerals.  Some of the CheMin team members have been working for more than 2 decades to get x-ray diffraction on Mars!  This first sample analysis is a spectacular achievement.

Similarly, SAM characterized the composition of the martian atmosphere.  The SAM team looked for methane, a trace gas that some have suggested is present based on observations from Earth and a Mars orbiter.  However, those detections have been very controversial.  The SAM team announced that they did not detect martian methane in the atmosphere.  SAM did, however, refine estimates of the amount of 13C versus 12C in carbon dioxide as well as the concentration and isotopic ratios of argon.  These results are critical for understanding the history of the martian atmosphere, in particular why it is thin and how much of it might have been lost to space over the last several billion years.

SAM has not yet analyzed the dust and sand that CheMin has analyzed.  Those analyses are in the works and will represent another important milestone for our mission.

On a personal note, I'm heading to the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.  There is a special session on results from the Mars Science Laboratory, and I'll be presenting our geological map on Monday morning.  It will be great to share our results with our colleagues!

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