Mars soil analysis reveals surprising amount of water

LOS ANGELES Fri Sep 27, 2013 4:48am IST

Mars surface map detailing NASA Mars Rover Curiosity's mission so far. Officials announced on Thursday that the rover has found no sign of methane, a telltale sign of life. REUTERS

Mars surface map detailing NASA Mars Rover Curiosity's mission so far. Officials announced on Thursday that the rover has found no sign of methane, a telltale sign of life.

Credit: Reuters

Related Topics

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Analysis of Martian soil by NASA's ongoing Mars Curiosity rover turned up a surprising amount of water, as well as a chemical that will make a search for life more complicated, scientists said on Thursday.

A scoop of fine-grained sand collected by the rover shortly after its August 2012 touchdown showed the soil contains about 2 percent of water by weight.

"It was kind of a surprise to us," said Curiosity scientist Laurie Leshin with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"If you take a cubic foot of that soil you can basically get two pints of water out it," she said. "The soil on the surface is really a little like a sponge for sucking stuff out of the atmosphere."

Scientists announced last week that so far the planet's atmosphere shows no signs of methane, a gas which on Earth is strongly tied to life. Plumes of methane had been detected over the past decade by Mars orbiters and ground-based telescopes.

Methane, which should last about 200 years under Martian photochemistry, also can be produced by geologic events.

The water was found by heating a tiny bit of soil to 1,535 degrees Fahrenheit (835 degrees Celsius) inside Curiosity's chemistry laboratory and analyzing the resulting gas releases.

Scientists found that in addition to water, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and other materials, the sands of Mars also contain reactive chemicals known as perchlorates.

NASA's now-defunct Phoenix lander had found perchlorate in the planet's northern polar region, but scientists did not know until Curiosity's analysis that the chemical apparently is widespread.

"They seem to accumulate on the surface (of Mars), almost like snow," said lead Curiosity scientist John Grotzinger with the California Institute of Technology.

That is important to know because looking for organic material on Mars may now require a new approach.

"The tried-and-true technique on Earth is to heat the sample and take a look at the gases that are produced," Grotzinger told Reuters.

But the heat can cause perchlorate to break down, in the process degrading the organic compounds scientists are looking for, Grotzinger said.

"We as a community will have to wrestle with understanding the behavior of perchlorate," he added.

The presence of perchlorate in soil samples could explain why scientists have so far had a hard time finding organic material on Mars. Even if life never evolved on Mars, the planet should have organic carbon deposits left by crashing asteroids and meteors, scientists believe.

The results of Curiosity's first 100 days on Mars, published in the journal Science this week, also revealed the presence of a rock with a far more complicated chemical history than scientists expected to find on Mars.

Curiosity is continuing its search for habitats that could have supported ancient microbial life. It already has found one suitable location inside an ancient slab of bedrock near the rover's Gale Crater landing site.

Curiosity is driving to its primary science site, a three-mile-tall (5-km) mountain rising from the crater's floor.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

FILED UNDER:

Religion and Politics

REUTERS SHOWCASE

Ten Years On

Ten Years On

10 years on, tsunami warning stumbles at the "last mile".  Full Article 

Exit Polls

Exit Polls

BJP unlikely to form Jammu & Kashmir govt - polls.  Full Article 

Forceful Conversions

Forceful Conversions

BJP distances itself from religious conversions.  Full Article 

Hopeful Dhoni

Hopeful Dhoni

India's new vintage nearly ready, says Dhoni.  Full Article 

Photo

Fund Raising

Flipkart raises $700 million in fresh funding.   Full Article 

Reforms Push

Reforms Push

Modi may order insurance, coal reforms if vote delayed - officials.  Full Article 

Ali Hospitalized

Ali Hospitalized

Boxing great Muhammad Ali hospitalized with pneumonia.  Full Article 

Going International

Going International

Bollywood’s Priyanka Chopra sets sights on American TV.  Full Article 

India This Week

India This Week

Some of our best photos from this week.   Full Coverage 

Reuters India Mobile

Reuters India Mobile

Get the latest news on the go. Visit Reuters India on your mobile device   Full Coverage