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Curiosity seeks methane in atmospheric samples

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

A month after landing on Mars, the NASA Curiosity rover is about to begin testing out the shoulder and elbow joints of its robotic arm, mission managers said today in a press briefing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The upper-body calisthenics come as an instrument in the rover’s guts goes after one of the important early science questions of the mission: whether Mars has methane, which can be produced both biologically and geologically.

The rover has traveled 109 metres (as seen at right in this HiRise image), and now sits 82 metres from the landing site, says mission manager Michael Watkins. It will stay in this spot, about a quarter of the way to Glenelg, the intriguing “triple-point” where three geological formations come together, as engineers figure out how to move the robotic arm under the reduced gravity of Mars. The hand lens imager at the end of the arm will also complete a “belly pan” of the underside of the rover.

After about a week, Curiosity will begin roving again, in search of a fine-grained basaltic rock for testing with APXS and ChemCam, and also a scoop of soil to be fed into CheMin. Meanwhile, scientists working with one of the main geochemical instruments, the Sample Analysis at Mars, are busy trying to digest a gulp of the martian atmosphere. Deputy project scientist Joy Crisp says that, on 2 and 3 September, the instrument, which can detect methane at levels of parts per trillion, took a second sample of the atmosphere — this time pumping out residual air from Earth. Results could come in about a week  — and these could shed light on the controversial question of martian methane. “We expect to be able to measure it at levels that other experiments have measured it at — if it’s truly there,” Crisp says.


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