The Curiosity rover has looked for methane on the Red Planet and has found none, disappointing hopes for finding life—Earth’s main source of methane—on Mars.
Researchers had good reasons to pin their hopes for Martian life on methane. On Earth, living things, such as methanogenic microbes, wetlands, and cattle, release vast quantities of the stuff. Researchers thought that any methane found on Mars might have come from a living thing, too. Plus, in Mars’ atmosphere, methane would dissipate quickly, so any that they did find was likely to be fresh and might even indicate that its Martian producer was still alive.
This striking image represents the chemical composition of Martian sand recently collected by the Curiosity rover. Analysis of it reveals that Martian dirt is similar to volcanic soil from Hawaii, containing crystalline feldspar, pyroxene and olivine. To create this image, the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument bombarded sand samples with X-rays, which bounce off in different patterns depending on the sample composition, allowing scientists to figure out which chemicals are present and in what quantities.
Image via NASA
When water flows over stones, it smooths them out and carries them in its path. Even when the steam has long since dried up, the gravel it leaves behind provides distinct evidence of the water’s former presence. And now the Curiosity rover has found tell-tale gravel embedded in the Martian bedrock, small stones rounded by water and too large for wind to have transported—rocky proof of water’s presence on the Red Planet. Although previous photos suggested that water once flowed on Mars, the rocks in outcrops like the one pictured here, dubbed “Hottah” after Canada’s Hottah Lake, are the most definitive evidence of water on Mars that we have ever found.
On the left, you see a perfectly innocent, three-inch wide section of Mars regolith, going about its business. On the right, you see the same regolith after being subjected to the ministrations of one of the Curiosity rover’s most exciting tools, a laser drill.
On August 25, the laser slammed into each of the five spots visible above 50 times. Each time, it struck with a million-plus watts of power for five one-billionths of a second. This incredible power got the dust to glow, and from its glow, the rover’s built-in spectrometer deduced the dust’s chemical content.
Before Curiosity sets off across the Martian landscape, it needs a chance to catch its (metaphorical) breath. As the rover performs health checks on its systems to ensure that everything is working properly, the robot’s cameras are also checking out its surroundings. This panoramic view, showing Gale Crater and its rim, is a combination of two images taken by the navigation cameras on Curiosity’s mast. Click on it to see the Martian surface in full-resolution glory.
In the wee hours after midnight on Monday, the Mars Science Laboratory, known to its many admirers as “Curiosity,” touched down on Mars—and ever since, photos have been trickling in from the Red Planet.
This image isn’t just a great shot of Curiosity’s shadow; it also shows us the rover’s goal: Mount Sharp, that great big mountain in the middle of Gale Crater. Curiosity will trundle up to the mountain and probe its strata to uncover the past and present Martian environment.
Mars Science Laboratory descending
to the surface, as seen by Mars
It has been quite a morning, science fans.
In the wee hours, after traveling Mars-ward for months, the Mars Science Laboratory executed its nail-biting landing maneuver, nicknamed by NASA engineers “Seven Minutes of Terror.” The $2.5 billion craft, bearing the largest-ever Mars rover, Curiosity, autonomously sped into the Martian atmosphere, threw out a parachute, blew off its heat shield, blasted rockets downwards to slow itself, split in two, and lowered one half of itself, the rover, down to the surface, where Curiosity opened its camera eyes and began sending pictures back to Earth.
Get excited: the new Mars rover Curiosity is set to land early next week. And the Internet wants you to be prepared, circulating articles, explanations, and lots of videos, the highlights of which we’ve collected here:
Why Do We Have Curiosity?
Considering that we already have one working rover on the surface of the Red Planet, what’s with all the brouhaha over this one? To find out why we’re sending Curiosity to Mars, Ph.D Comics went to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to talk to scientists, ogle the full-sized replica of Curiosity, and learn about the new rover’s scientific instruments, which include, among other things, a rock-shooting laser.
Concept art of Curiosity on Mars
With any luck, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity will land successfully in August and trundle off across the surface of the Red Planet. Headlines will laud the brave little robot travelling so far from home. But behind Curiosity, and its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, is a team of human operators.
Over at Popular Science, Rebecca Boyle looks into the experiences of the rover drivers.
Scott Maxwell stared at his bedroom ceiling in the hours after his first drive, restless with excitement. All systems were go, and he’d sent the commands by the time he left the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now he was supposed to sleep before his next shift on Mars time. But he knew that on the fourth planet from the sun, the Spirit rover’s wheels had started to move.
What’s the News: On Friday, after five years of deliberation over 100 candidates, NASA announced its choice of landing site for Curiosity, the next Mars rover: Gale crater, a massive pit with a three-mile-high mound in its center. The mission’s primary goal is to assess whether conditions suitable for microbial life ever existed on the Red Planet; Gale was selected over the three other finalists in part because its mountain promises access to layered sediments extending deep into the Martian past.