NASA's Curiosity rover has been on the surface of Mars for a month now, and it recently collected a sample of the air around it for the first time since landing on the surface of the Red Planet. Among its various other duties, one of Curiosity's goals is to study the air composition on Mars, and it does so by collecting air samples with its Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (Sam). Of course, NASA scientists already know what to expect when the sample results come back - carbon dioxide, and lots of it.
Instead of confirming what we already know, the goal of this research is to see if there is evidence of methane in the air. We've seen hints of methane on the planet before, observing it through satellites and telescopes here on Earth, but the problem with methane is that it doesn't hang around in the air too long. If Curiosity finds methane in the air with these tests, then that would suggest that there's a replenishing source somewhere on the planet.
We could know the results of the initial test next week, the Curiosity team's Joy Crisp told BBC, but she also said that it may be some time before we fully understand the results of all the data. "When Sam is at its best it can measure various parts per trillion of methane," she said, "and the expected amounts based on measurements taken from orbit around Mars and from Earth telescopes should be in the 10 to a few 10s of parts per billion. But it's so early in the use of Sam, which is a complicated instrument, and we have to sort through the data."
Curiosity is currently on the way to Glenelg, the first significant scientific stop on its longer trip that will end at the base of Mount Sharp. At Glenelg, Curiosity will use its drill for the first time, but before it reaches its first destination, Curiosity has stopped to test out some of the other instruments it comes equipped with. It's going to be an exciting few weeks for the Curiosity rover, so keep it here at SlashGear for more information!
[Image via NASA JPL]