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The Mars Science Lab (MSL) aboard the Curiosity Rover continues on its way to Glenelg, a promising site for investigation that will be reached in October. Above in this NASA image captured from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter you can see the blast marks from the landing and the tracks made by the rover since the operators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) set out for the first major objective of the science mission.

Along the way, NASA continues to test the systems in the MSL in preparation for more in-depth tests and experiments to come. In my series of diaries about the Mars mission I've highlighted several of the powerful scientific instruments in this remarkable robot laboratory, including the ChemCam, the ChemMin and SAM, the Sample Analysis at Mars suite of instruments.

There is much more to the MSL than just those instruments, and NASA continues to exercise and prepare the many systems and instruments during the slow trek to Glenelg. My imagination remains captivated by the possibilities of the research that this mission can perform. If you are interested, too, follow me into the tall grass to discuss it some more.

NASA overstates the speed of this platform by calling it a rover. I think creeper might be more accurate. Anyway, it makes perfect sense to go so slowly, given the difficulties of controlling it across the chasm of seven light minutes. Besides, I'm perfectly happy for the first big investigations to happen in October, when election interest is peaking. As I see the framing of the campaigns after their conventions, anything that makes government look good is good for President Obama and the Democrats in the election.

Whether or not that turns out to be true, the mission continues to do cool stuff every day. In the last couple of days, NASA has begun testing a sample of Martian atmosphere. From space observation, Viking missions in the 1970's, etc., NASA has pretty detailed data on the thin Martian atmosphere. But in this case, they are looking for something in particular. Joy Crisp, speaking on behalf of NASA for the mission confirmed that the objective, using SAM's more sensitive than ever instruments, is to look for methane:

“When Sam is at its best it can measure various parts per trillion of methane,” she said, “and the expected amounts based on measurements taken from orbit around Mars and from Earth telescopes should be in the 10 to a few 10s of parts per billion. But it’s so early in the use of Sam, which is a complicated instrument, and we have to sort through the data.”
What they may find intrigues me because of what little I know about methane. I know it is a hydrocarbon and that atmospheric methane will break down in sunlight into less complex molecules. I know that means that if methane is detected, some source on Mars must be replenishing it. That could very well be the result of areological occurrences. It might be the result of xenobiology.

All MSL results that that either don't rule out the possibility of biology on Mars or that confirm the possibility of biology on Mars will be happy results for me. I hope they find lots of methane and it is apparently unassociated with any areological processes such as vulcanism or seismic activity.  

Of course, there has to be a way to acquire samples and get them into and out of the snazzy scientific instruments and that job falls to a versatile robot arm system. NASA has begun testing that system to prepare for the work ahead. According to Daniel Limonadi, a NASA engineer on the project:

“We will be putting the arm through a range of motions and placing it at important ‘teach points’ that were established during Earth testing, such as the positions for putting sample material into the inlet ports for analytical instruments…These activities are important to get a better understanding for how the arm functions after the long cruise to Mars and in the different temperature and gravity of Mars, compared to earlier testing on Earth.”

Here is what Slate had to say about that "Badass" robot arm:

Though it only has one, the 7-foot, 150-pound appendage is one heck of a gun. Capable of lifting twice it's weight and equipped with prospecting tools and a nifty Swiss-Army-like gadget, the robotic arm also sports an extreme close-up camera for visual analysis and an X-ray spectrometer to examine the stuff it finds.

In my next Mars diary, I'll discuss MSL's ability to resolve images on an extremely fine scale. Microfossils, anyone?  

Originally posted to LeftOfYou on Sat Sep 08, 2012 at 03:17 PM PDT.

Also republished by Astro Kos, SciTech, Kossacks on Mars, and Community Spotlight.

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