A sample of Martian topsoil scooped by NASA’s Curiosity rover last year and put into its onboard chemical laboratory has been found to contain water in quantities totaling two percent of its composition. The lab, named Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), used several instruments, including a mass spectrometer, to determine the makeup of the sample after it had been heated to just over 1,500° Fahrenheit. In addition to water, the sample contained perchlorates, which are toxic to humans but could be used as an energy source by certain kinds of microbes, further extending the possibility of life. Several papers describing Curiosity’s findings were recently published in Science.
What’s the Big Idea?
The data collected by SAM and Curiosity’s other instruments “greatly advance our understanding of surface processes and the action of water on Mars,” says SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy. Two percent of water may not seem like a lot, but for future missions, it could mean a great deal, says paper lead author and Rensselaer professor Laurie Leshin. “When we send people, they could scoop up the soil anywhere on the surface, heat it just a bit, and obtain water.”