Curiouser and Curiouser

So, I think it was a given that today’s post was going to be about the Curiosity rover’s fate. And, as I’m sure you’re all aware, dear galleons, Curiosity landed without a problem and is currently hanging out on the Martian surface:


But what you might NOT realize is what is inside that big ol’ rover.


Well, not me exactly. It’s SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars), which is a big box of science-y goodness tucked inside Curiosity. SAM is a successor to the twin Viking experiments of 1976-77, experiments which detected positive results for life on the red planet at both Viking landing sites (Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia). The simple version of the experiment had one of the Viking landers gather some soil and treat it with a solution containing small, organic chemicals labeled with radioactive carbon. These soil samples then released a gas. We don’t actually know which gas was released. The creator of the experiment, Gilbert Levin, believes it was carbon dioxide released from the oxidation of organic chemicals, but it’s also likely the gas was methane. What we do know, however, is that when we heated the samples to temperatures high enough to kill most Earth microbes, the gas was no longer released.

For some, this was proof we’d found life on Mars, but others were… less certain. Another experiment on the landers failed to find any evidence of organic matter in the soil samples.

Since then, we’ve found potential fossilized life in meteorites originating from Mars, but those initial Viking findings remain fuzzy. And by Feynman’s bongos, we want to know if there’s life on the rock next door. It’s a staple of science fiction, an idea most of us have toyed with- the idea that life exists, not just somewhere else in the wide, wide universe, but right here in our own neighborhood.

SAM is working to settle the question once and for all. While it’s not the only question Curiosity is up there to answer, it’s certainly a big one.

Galleons, meet SAM:

SAM is equipped with some badass gear. Its own chemical separation and processing laboratory, quadrupole mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, tunable laser spectrometer… this baby is one sick science package. With more advanced instruments than Viking, SAM’s gonna figure this shit out. Scanning the soil, scanning the atmosphere… Curiosity and SAM are going to be busy.

I expect you’ll hear a lot more from me… er, from SAM, in the next two years.


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