Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Curiosity Shakes, Bakes, and Tastes Mars with SAM

04.12.2012
NASA's Curiosity rover analyzed its first solid sample of Mars in Nov. with a variety of instruments, including the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

Developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., SAM is a portable chemistry lab tucked inside the Curiosity rover. SAM examines the chemistry of samples it ingests, checking particularly for chemistry relevant to whether an environment can support or could have supported life.


This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The sample of Martian soil came from the patch of windblown material called "Rocknest," which had provided a sample previously for mineralogical analysis by Curiosity's Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. CheMin also received a new sample from the same Rocknest scoop that fed SAM. SAM has previously analyzed samples of the Martian atmosphere.

SAM can get a solid sample of Mars from either a drill or a scoop attached to the end of Curiosity's robotic arm. Since Rocknest is essentially a pile of loose soil, the scoop was used this time.

"This is the first time we've analyzed a solid sample using all three instruments that comprise SAM," said Paul Mahaffy, SAM Principal Investigator at NASA Goddard. "We also cleaned Curiosity's sample manipulation system and successfully tested our ability to move the sample from the manipulation system through the instrument suite."

A complex choreography was required to get the sample inside SAM for analysis, according to Mahaffy. First, since the scoop might still have had contamination from Earth, the first three scoops were shaken, run through a sieve, then dumped right back on the surface with the idea that they would carry away any contaminants with them. A sieved portion of the fourth scoop – just a few thousandths of a gram – was then delivered to SAM. A cover that protects SAM from accidentally ingesting windblown material was opened, and Curiosity's arm positioned the sample over SAM's inlet funnels. Before the sample was dropped, SAM turned on its inlet funnel vibrators, which move the sample into a tiny quartz cup. After the sample dropped, the vibrator was turned off, the cover was closed, and the cup, which is on a carousel holding 74 sample cups, was lowered and moved to one of two ovens.

After the sample was baked to release its gases, SAM's three instruments "digested" them and gave Curiosity its first "taste" of Mars. A basic three-step process will be used to analyze future samples as well:

Separate the molecules:
Gas from the sample first travels to the Gas Chromatograph (GC) instrument. The purpose of this instrument is to sort out all the different molecules in the sample, and tell how much of each kind there is. It accomplishes this by using a stream of helium gas to push the sample down a long, narrow tube (which is wound into a coil to save space). Helium is used because it is inert, meaning it won't react with and change any of the sample molecules. The inside of the tube is coated with a thin film. As molecules travel through the tube, they stick for a bit on the film, and the heavier the molecule, the longer it sticks. Thus, the lighter molecules emerge from the tube first, followed by the middleweight molecules, with the heaviest molecules bringing up the rear.

Identify the molecules:

Since molecules of different weights emerge from the tube of the gas chromatograph at different times, the GC can send groups of different weights, one at a time, to SAM's next instrument, which will determine exactly what kind of molecule makes up each of the groups. This is the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS) instrument. It fires high-speed electrons at the molecules, breaking them up into fragments and giving the molecules and their fragments an electric charge. These molecules and their fragments with an electric charge can be moved by electric fields. The QMS uses both direct current and alternating current fields to sort the electrically charged molecules and fragments based on their weight (mass). Molecules and fragments of different mass are counted by a detector at different times to generate a mass spectrum, which is a pattern that uniquely identifies molecules.

Identify the volatiles and determine the isotopes:

After the QMS identifies the molecules, the sample is directed into the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), which can identify and analyze certain volatile molecules, like methane and carbon dioxide. The sample enters a chamber with precisely positioned mirrors at both ends. A laser is fired through a tiny hole in one of the mirrors. As the laser light bounces between the mirrors, it illuminates the sample. Different molecules will absorb certain colors (frequencies) of light, so the TLS identifies the molecules by which colors of the laser are blocked (since the laser is tunable, it can be adjusted to shine in a range of colors).

The TLS can also identify isotopes the same way. Isotopes are versions of an element that are a little bit heavier because their nucleus contains more neutrons. For example, carbon 13 is an atom of carbon with an extra neutron, so it is a heavier version of the more common carbon 12. Occasionally, a carbon 13 will take the place of a carbon 12 in an organic molecule. This is important since life prefers to use the lighter isotopes, because chemical reactions with them require less energy. So if we measure the isotopes of carbon in a material and discover that there is more light carbon relative to heavy carbon than would be found randomly, we might guess that we are seeing the effects of life.

Finally, since volatile molecules are found in the atmosphere as well as in soil and rock, samples of the Martian air can be sent directly to the TLS without going through SAM's other instruments.

SAM was developed at NASA Goddard, but with significant elements provided by industry, university, and NASA partners. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Curiosity/Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the rover.

For more information about SAM, refer to the "SAM I am" site at: http://ssed.gsfc.nasa.gov/sam/samiam.html

For more information about the Curiosity rover, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl Nancy Neal-Jones / Bill Steigerwald
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Nancy.N.Jones@nasa.gov / William.A.Steigerwald@nasa.gov
Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

Bill Steigerwald | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nasa.gov
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/news/sam-tastes-mars.html

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Applicability of dynamic facilitation theory to binary hard disk systems
08.12.2016 | Nagoya Institute of Technology

nachricht Will Earth still exist 5 billion years from now?
08.12.2016 | KU Leuven

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Closing the carbon loop

08.12.2016 | Life Sciences

Applicability of dynamic facilitation theory to binary hard disk systems

08.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Scientists track chemical and structural evolution of catalytic nanoparticles in 3-D

08.12.2016 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>