The Red Planet has long been the subject of many science fiction films and literature. Ideas of little green men and life on Mars have populated popular culture for centuries and are thought to be just the product human imagination and myth. After all, could the barren planet really be able to support life?
Researchers involved in the NASA Curiosity mission believe this might be possible. In a recent report published by scientists working with the Curiosity rover, findings suggest that 2 percent of the Martian soil is composed of water. Chemically bound in the fine dust of the Gale crater, this elemental form of water may hold the key to man stepping foot on the red planet and shed further light on whether life ever or, perhaps, still does exist there.`
Landing on Mars in Aug. 2012, the Curiosity rover entered the Martian atmosphere with the intention of analyzing atmospheric and soil compositions, preparing for future manned missions to Mars and looking for indications of life on the red planet. Equipped with millions of dollars of scientific instruments including sophisticated cameras, spectrometers, radiation detectors and environmental sensors, the rover set out to collect data in the Gale Crater just south of the Martian equator.
In conducting the experiment, the Rover used Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM): a collection of equipment located in the front of the rover that includes a gas chromotograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer. SAM takes up over half of the rover’s scientific payload and allows researchers to measure the chemical compositions of collected compounds as well as determine the abundance of various isotopes of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
Scientists working on the project chose to analyze finely grained dust from the Rocknest aeolian deposit in the Gale crater. Containing soil similar in composition to several other locations on Mars, the deposit allowed researchers to collect data representative of the planet as a whole.
When ingesting the soil sample or fine- as the collection of soil, fine dust, and debris is known- the rover used SAM to heat the obtained matter to an excess of 835 degrees Celsius. Extensive heating vaporized the fine allowing the composition of the resulting gases to be determined. Among the vapors, researchers identified water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and several sulfur compounds. Of the soil, 2% was found to be water or an amount equal to 1 liter per every cubic foot.
Although this discovery is important in the quest for life on Mars, it is especially important due to the implications it has for manned missions to the planet.
Currently, the data collected by Curiosity has been analyzed by scientists back on Earth and continues to lend support for the existence of life on Mars. In the coming months and years, Curiosity will continue to search for traces of organic compounds on the planet’s surface and in its atmosphere. Until concrete evidence is found, only further research will reveal whether life ever existed on this mysterious red planet and what this discovery has in store for future astronauts.