NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has discovered “some exciting new results” during its exploration of the Martian surface, but the team behind the distant explorer can’t yet spill the beans as the data must be re-checked. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good” principal investigator John Grotzinger teased NPR, with the full reveal potentially not taking place for several weeks. However, NASA has confirmed that it’s data from the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) tool.
SAM is in fact a trio of instruments in one, consisting of a gas chromatograph, a quadrupole mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer. “Together they search for and measure the abundances of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen” NASA explains, ”elements that are associated with life as we know it.”
Curiosity’s instruments have already turned up a number of interesting findings, including the fact that the radiation levels – if not the rest of the environment, necessarily – are not dangerous to human life. Previous samples of soil have revealed unusual and previously-unseen qualities, as well as areas of the Martian surface where water may once have run.
“We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting” Grotzinger says, though warns that it’s a work-in-progress still. “The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down.”
Curiosity’s mission is to discover whether Mars ever supported – or could support – microbial life. Grotzinger’s fear is that a premature announcement could turn out to be unwarranted, should the data turn out to be incorrect; the NASA team discovered what looked like methane in a previous SAM result, but subsequent examination indicated it had been brought up from Earth by the rover.