The latest results from analyses in the search for organics and methane on Mars have just been published by the SAM team on Mars Science Laboratory. SAM stands for Sample Analyses at Mars, and it is a Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometer for solid samples drilled from the Gale Crater mudstones, and a Tuneable Laser Spectrometer to identify molecules in the Mars atmosphere. Happily the analytical chain of Curiosity’s drill and X-ray diffraction and SAM gas chromatography mass spectrometer is now working again.
The SAM results show that organics can be preserved on Mars, something that wasn’t clear from the 1976 Viking results. Now that we are rapidly approaching 2020 when ExoMars and Mars2020 will be launched this provides vital clues for the next stages of martian exploration. ExoMars will drill 2m metres and so will sample at a significantly deeper level, less effected by radiation damage to organics. We are using the results from MSL to help us predict what we will find at our remaining ExoMars landing site candidates. Should we aim to land on a surface like the Gale Crater Murray unit mudstones in order to maximise our chances of finding abundant organics? Mars2020 is planned to be the collecting part of Mars Sample Return and that in turn will allow a full suite of analyses to be directed at organics to see if they are associated with primitive life.