Its been a busy week for everyone’s favourite SUV sized science tank – not only has it been taking pretty myspace photos of itself, but also managed to analyse its first martian rock sample and issue a statement on methane in the atmosphere of Mars.
On Halloween Curiousity took a myspace like photo of itself (see above) using its Mars Hand Lens Imager. The photo is actually a composite mosaic photo formed of 55 stitched together high resolution images. The Mars Science laboratory team takes photos like this to check that Curiosity doesnt have any damage that they have missed (and also to satisfy astronomy geeks like you and me) – the MHLI is the only camera out of the 17 on board that can take photos of the entire rover due to its position on the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm.
When it wasn’t taking photos of itself like a lovesick teenager, Curiosity managed to find some time to do some actual science this week, characterising the chemical makeup of some soil samples taken from around the Rover. The makeup has been described as similar to volcanic rocks found on Hawaii with results consistent with the minerals feldspar, pyroxene and olivine. The sample was analysed by a process called X-ray diffraction – x rays are fired at a sample and the minerals in that sample deflect the x rays by an amount unique to the mineral. By comparing the rings found to known patterns the minerals were determined to a very high accuracy.
Finally, Curiosity managed to issue a statement on the presence of Methane in the Martain atmosphere – much hoped for since Methane is a volatile substance that evaporates easily meaning that if found it is an indicator of life on Mars either past or present.
“Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all. At this point in the mission we’re just excited to be searching for it,” said Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “While we determine upper limits on low values, atmospheric variability in the Martian atmosphere could yet hold surprises for us.”
The result is disappointing but not unexpected – it is entirely possible that methane might be found later in Curiosity’s mission.