Scientists on the U.S.-led Mars exploration mission have received the first data transmissions of information about the make-up of the red planet’s surface -- partly thanks to a pair of high-tech gadgets from Germany.
The martian landscape as seen by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit's panoramic camera.
A thunder and lightning storm over Australia may have temporarily disrupted NASA’s communication with the Spirit rover robot currently rolling around Mars on Thursday, but an important breakthrough has already been made.
In addition to pictures of its surroundings, Spirit has also transmitted the first data from soil samples taken by a pair of spectrometers.
The complex instruments, which measure amounts of elements in the soil, were developed by two teams of German scientists. An alpha particle X-ray spectrometer which “sniffs” the rocks and soil and looks for minerals was developed at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz. Spirit also has an iron-sensing Mossbauer Spectrometer MIMOS II, developed by the Johannes Gutenberg University, also in Mainz.
“Everything is running to our full satisfaction, the instruments are performing optimally,” said Dr. Göstar Klingelhöfer, whose team developed the Mossbauer Spectrometer.
But the results delivered by the two instruments so far have puzzled scientists overseeing the mission in Pasadena, California. “Mars isn’t going to give up its secrets easily. It’s going to take a lot of time,” Steve Squyres, the mission’s principal investigator told a news briefing.
Soil samples taken from the Gusev Crater – a barren basin scientists think may have been the site of an ancient lake bed -- showed large amounts of silicon and iron, and smaller amounts of sulfur, chlorine, calcium and nickel. While those findings confirm the basic pattern of elements found on previous NASA missions to Mars, scientists were surprised at the traces of olivine in the samples. Since olivine is commonly found in volcanic rocks, scientists are speculating that the sample surface soil could be ground up lava.
Squyres also said that he and other mission scientists were puzzled by what he called a “chemical glue” that appears to be holding grains of soil together in clumps.
“Sulfur and chlorine could hold the particles together,” Squyres said. But more importantly, both minerals could be have been left behind had water once flowed over the sand and then evaporated, leaving behind a kind of crust.
Water is key
The search for signs of water is central to the Mars mission. Water was essential to the existence of life on Earth, so if scientists can prove there was – or is – water on Mars, there is a possibility that life existed there, too.
If Spirit indeed finds clues pointing to the existence of water and life on Mars, then German instruments will have made a “decisive contribution,” Dr. Günter Lugmair of the Max Planck Institute in Mainz told Spiegel magazine. The rover won’t be able to bring back irrefutable proof, however. “ Spirit doesn’t have the kind of instruments that could, for example, find fossilized microbes,” Lugmair explained.
The Spirit rover landed on Mars on Jan.3, and almost immediately began sending back detailed images of the martian landscape. A second NASA rover, the Opportunity, is now hurtling toward the opposite side of the planet. It is expected to touch down on Jan. 24 to begin its own three-month exploration mission.
The ESA's Mars Express.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA) said its Mars Express, which began orbiting Mars on Dec. 25, is about to reach its final operating orbit. It has already sent back its first high-resolution, three-dimensional image of Mars. There are still no signs of life from the Mars Express companion lander, Beagle 2, which scientists believe lost contact with the orbiter when it landed in an unforeseen crater.