This is an exciting week for NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which will conduct a highly anticipated experiment that can show clues about the possibility of life once on Mars.
Curiosity often uses its sample analysis to analyze Martian samples, including rocks and atmospheres on MARS (SAM) equipment. However, SAM is conducting a very special investigation this week.
Within the SAM instrument are two small cups of a compound called tetramethylammonium hydroxide, or TMAH, used to identify organic materials in the samples. It was possible to fit only a small amount of this compound into the rover, so it is a commodity that has to be used very carefully. Curiosity scientists have long been waiting for the right opportunity to use TMAH and discover organic compounds.
NASA atmospheric scientist Scott Guzevich wrote in a blog post, “SAM has only two small containers of TMAH and so we have been waiting for 8 years on the right rock to use this precious precious object.” “Finally the wait is over and SAM hopes that soon we will get new insights into the chemistry of ancient Mars.”
Curiosity has recently been investigating a location called Mary Anning 3, where it has drilled a hole to access rock samples. This particular area of the Gayle crater is rich in clay minerals and can hold organic compounds, which may be associated with the presence of life but can also be formed by other processes. So finding organic compounds indicated that possible elements for life were once present on Mars, but would not confirm that life was definitely present there.
To examine these organic compounds, Curiosity would run its drill backwards and release samples of PAM rock into the SAM Instrument, where they would be soaked in TMAH. Closed gases can tell researchers what types of compounds make samples.
In late August, Curiosity conducted a dry demonstration of the experiment, to ensure that everything was working as expected and to ensure that TMAH’s precious cup would not be biased. Now, the device is ready to move forward with actual experimentation, and we’ll have to wait and see what results it produces.