Curiosity Gets the Big Scoop on Martian Water
Making a big splash (pun intended) in the space news world today is the report that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has found traces of water in samples of Martian soil! The samples were scooped from an area nicknamed “Rocknest” in October 2012 and analyzed with the SAM instrument suite (read more on that here.)
Now it’s not a lot of water, definitely not a cupful or even remotely resembling what we’d call damp, but it is water — about 2% of the soil particles’ mass contains water molecules, and it’s estimated that this is indicative of the surface material across the entire planet. Obviously the implications of this are huge! (Think: resources for future explorers, for one!)
The results were published today in Science as one article in a five-paper special section on the Curiosity mission.
“One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Laurie Leshin, lead author of one paper and dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.”
In the study, scientists used the rover’s scoop to collect dust, dirt and finely grained soil from a sandy patch known as Rocknest. Researchers fed portions of the fifth scoop into SAM. Inside SAM, the “fines” – the dust, dirt and fine soil – were heated to 1,535 degrees F (835 C).
Baking the sample also revealed a compound containing chlorine and oxygen, likely chlorate or perchlorate, previously found near the north pole on Mars. Finding such compounds at Curiosity’s equatorial site suggests they could be distributed more globally. The analysis also suggests the presence of carbonate materials, which form in the presence of water.
The sample also released significant carbon dioxide, oxygen and sulfur compounds. (But still no methane.)
Even more importantly, the water found in the Rocknest soil is likely the result of processes occurring on Mars today.
“The ratio of hydrogen isotopes in water released from baked samples of Rocknest soil indicates the water molecules attached to soil particles come from interaction with the modern atmosphere,” said Leshin.
The results were published today in Science as one article in a five-paper special section on the Curiosity mission. Thirty-four researchers, all members of the Mars Science Laboratory Science Team, contributed to the paper.
(Source: NASA news release)
Of course, this isn’t the first evidence of water on the Red Planet, not by a long shot. Check out the video below from Discovery showing 6 different findings that point to Martian water (including this one!)
Find out more about the MSL mission here.