NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover has been busy at work on the Red Planet, undertaking the first major analysis of Martian soil and the planet’s ultra-thin atmosphere. But it’s also had time to take some photos of the journey, specifically a new high-res, full-color self-portrait using the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the end of its 7-foot-long robotic arm.
First up — the new science results: Curiosity used its Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin) to bombard a Martian soil sample with X-rays, performing the most accurate mineral identification on Mars yet, discovering that the soil is similar in composition to volcanic areas on Earth such as Mauna Kea, Hawai’i, which contains basaltic material.
The soil sample that was analyzed for this purpose was scooped up by the rover from an area of Mars known as “Rocknest,” for the prevalence of boulders. The sample contained particles that were local — originating from the area itself — and global, that is, blown in from around Mars by the planet’s recurring dust storms.
“The ancient rocks…suggest flowing water, while the minerals in the younger soil are consistent with limited interaction with water,” said Indiana University geology professor David Bish, a co-investigator on the Curiosity rover’s CheMin instrument team, in a statement published by NASA on Tuesday.
Here’s a NASA image of the hole left behind from Curiosity’s scoop on the Martian surface snapped by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam):
And here’s a NASA graphic showing the results of CheMin’s first soil sample analysis. The different colors correspond to the intensity of the X-rays used to analyze the soil sample, with red being the most intense:
On Friday, NASA held a press teleconference livestreamed online to provide an update on the rover’s 23-month long mission (of which three months have already elapsed), during which scientists also revealed the results of the first-ever search for methane gas performed within the Martian atmosphere, using the Curiosity rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), specifically a component called the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS).
“At this time we don’t have positive detection of methane on Mars,” said Sushil Atreya, a co-investigator on the Curiosity rover’s SAM instrument and a professor of atmospheric and space science at the University of Michigan, Ann-Arbor, during the press conference.
Based on SAM’s analysis, the gasses that primarily make up the Martian atmosphere include carbon dioxide (95.9 percent), argon (2.0 percent), nitrogen (1.9 percent), oxygen (0.14 percent) and carbon monoxide (0.06 percent). All are plotted below on the following graph published on NASA’s website Friday:
However, the absence of methane in any significant portions in the Red Planet’s atmosphere alone does not rule out the potential for life at some point during Martian history, as methane could have existed in larger, more Earth-like amounts previously only to have been destroyed through some natural processes, anything from Martian ozone to the electrical conductivity of the planet’s immense dust storms.
Scientists also aren’t ruling out detecting more methane on Mars as they move the rover to other areas and continue to refine their tests.
“The search goes on,” said Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for the NASA Mars Exploration Program, during the press conference.
But for now, one thing is certain: The $2.5 billion rover is still fully operational and in good shape, as was evidenced in the new, high-resolution, full color self-portrait stitched together from 55 separate images captured by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a tool that’s similar to the one carried around by human geologists here on earth, and which has been used by the rover to snap close-ups of Martian rock to analyze their structure and composition. The new self-portrait is an improved version of a black-and-white self-portrait taken by the rover’s navigational cameras (Navcam) earlier on in the mission.
Here’s the full composite image, published by NASA on Wednesday: