The Curiosity Announcement

When Dr. John Grotzinger told NPR that the Mars rover had made a discovery “for the history books” everyone overreacted, including me.  It seemed plausible that Dr. Grotzinger was referring to the discovery of microbial life because it is hard to imagine any other discovery that would be “for the history books”.  Also, the instrument used to collect the recent data was the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which was designed to detect and analyze organics.

To everyone’s disappointment, Curiosity did not discover microbial life.  They discovered complex chemistry in the form of carbon and chlorine.  This once again demonstrates that organic compounds, which are essential building blocks for life, are quite common in our solar system.  This point should not be understated.  There is now evidence for complex organic materials on three planets: Mercury, Earth and Mars.  Is it everywhere?  Are complex organic molecules the rule and not the exception?  This seems to be the case, at least in our solar system.  However, even if that does not excite you, the Curiosity team’s discovery does raise a few interesting questions that can be answered over the next few months.

Where Did The Organics Come From?

Although Curiosity discovered complex organics, the team is unsure of whether these compounds are indigenous to Mars, or whether they came from space.  The team will be able to study the carbon and chlorine’s structure to answer this question.  Organic compounds become randomized if they come from space, however, if they are indigenous to Mars, they will have a more linear structure.  Understanding the origin of these compounds will give us better perspective on whether Mars could have more complex chemistry, and potentially biotic chemistry elsewhere.

When Did Mars Lose Its Atmosphere?

Studies have shown that Mars used to have a very thick atmosphere.  But when exactly did Mars lose this atmosphere, and at what rate?  Did the red planet only become red recently?  Did it lose its atmosphere quickly or very gradually?  By analyzing the levels of heavy hydrogen in the rocks that Curiosity discovered, the team will be able to roughly reconstruct atmospheric evolution on Mars over millions of years.  These data would enable us to get a better understanding of whether complex life could have existed on Mars at some point in the distant past.  Perhaps more interesting, it could give us some direct data on what type of complex ecosystems Mars possessed millions, or billions of years ago.

Start Drilling!

There is still more exciting data to come from Curiosity.  The SAM instrument worked well and identified organics.  That means it should continue to function properly and help the Curiosity team identify more organic compounds when they start driving towards Mount Sharp at the beginning of 2013.  Furthermore, the Curiosity team has yet to start drilling on Mars.  When Curiosity reaches Mount Sharp, which is an area composed of sedimentary rocks including clays, the team will start drilling because that is where they expect to find the most interesting chemistry.

Will they find life?  Obviously it is hard to say whether Mount Sharp will reveal an underground microbial ecosystem.  However, it is not impossible.  If Mars used to have a thick atmosphere, it is likely that life in some form existed on the surface in the past.  When Mars lost its atmosphere (whether it was quickly or slowly; a million years ago or a billion years ago), it is possible that whatever life there was adapted to a life underground.  There are several microbial extremophiles on Earth that thrive beneath the Earth’s surface; so perhaps life is utilizing similar adaptations on Mars.

Either way, the future of Martian exploration should continue to intrigue and excite us.  Go Curiosity!



About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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