Yesterday at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting, members of the SAM* team reported on their initial findings. This is the moment we had all been waiting for. The verdict? The instruments work, and the dirt on Mars is very similar to other dirt on Mars. Good night, folks.
All snark aside, science can be a slow painstaking process. As such, Curiosity is still going through a warm-up phase. Each instrument has to be tested, checked, rechecked, and tested again—a process that can take a week or longer for each piece of equipment. John “Earth Shaker” Grotzinger remarked that Curiosity’s middle name is “Patience”, and while we still have a little ways to go before celebrating, the good news is that the experiments seem to be working.
The initial tests have two goals: To check test results against similar experiments performed in the past, and to run Martian material through the equipment in order to flush Curiosity’s equipment of any possible Earth-borne molecules. The danger of an Earth-borne false positive is high, so the SAM team is looking at every chemical spike carefully to determine whether it really is indigenous to Mars or not.
Update: Another reason things are being taken slowly out there is because most of it is brand-spanking new. Grotzinger explained that Rover operators are still writing the instruction manual on Curiosity. For example, they learned to monitor wind speeds carefully so that their samples don’t get blown away before being dropped into the collector.
All this calibration doesn’t make the data found in these warm-up tests useless, however. So far the SAM team has gathered new information about the deuterium content of Mars water (which can help scientists date soil samples) and has made progress on the tantalizing presence of perchlorates in Mars soil (zomg organics). But again, no hooting and hollering yet. We’ll just have to wait.
*Sample Analysis at Mars