The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM)
The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments on the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover is headed to Mars to follow the carbon.
Follow the Carbon…
To a group of scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “follow the carbon” means to identify carbon-bearing compounds, their sources, and the processes that transform them in order to evaluate the habitability of Mars. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments on the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover intends to head to Mars to do just that. The launch window for Curiosity opens later this month. When it lands on Mars in mid-2012, Curiosity will spend at least one Mars year (687 Earth days) roving around the surface and collecting data with its diverse collection of instruments, including SAM.
An important goal of upcoming missions to Mars is to understand if life could have developed there. Curiosity will move us steadily toward that goal by assessing the habitability of our neighboring planet through a series of chemical and geological measurements. It will search for the building blocks of life. Carbon (C) is essential to life as we know it, in addition to liquid water, an energy source, and other elements like hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), nitrogen (N), sulfur (S), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), and iron (Fe). Organic compounds contain carbon bonded to hydrogen. The simplest organic compound is methane, which contains one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms. SAM is designed to “follow the carbon” on Mars by searching for organic compounds, such as methane. It will also search for inorganic volatiles and measure isotope ratios. To do this, SAM will collect samples of the soil and atmosphere and analyze them with three scientific instruments: a quadrupole mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph, and a tunable laser spectrometer.
The SAM data, along with data from Curiosity’s other instruments, will be used to inventory the chemical building-blocks of life in the landing area and to evaluate the history of the area’s environment. Curiosity’s other research goals include better understanding processes that affect Martian rocks, soil, atmosphere, water and carbon dioxide. In addition, Curiosity will look for evidence of processes that might have promoted preservation of biosignatures, the identification of which would be a key consideration in designing future missions to search for evidence of life on Mars.
For more information about SAM, visit the MSL Science Corner.
Except provided by Lora Bleacher, NASA.