Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan


The Curiosity Mission and Professor Atreya

Posted: July 19, 2012

The Curiosity Mission and Professor Atreya

The most advanced scientific instruments to be used on Mars’ surface will land in a crater near the planet’s equator on August 5 at 10:31 P.M.

The instruments are part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), an ambitious NASA mission to assess whether Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.

One of MSL’s scientific objectives is to search for organics, an umbrella term for molecules featuring carbon, the same molecules life on Earth is based on.

To search for organics, Curiosity, the rover carrying MSL, will scoop up soil and drill inside rocks. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of MSL instruments, parts of which were built and tested at Michigan Engineering, will analyze the solid samples and the air the rover sniffs to determine whether organics are present.

“Organics, whether or not connected to life, have never been positively identified on the surface of Mars, which seems puzzling considering that they have been raining down on Mars for 4.5 billion years, even if Mars never had its own source.” says Sushil Atreya, a professor in the University of Michigan Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences.

A science lead on the Goddard Space Flight Center’s SAM instrument suite, Atreya contributed to the conceptual development of the MSL mission decades ago, and now he will lend his expertise on trace gases to the mission.

“I will be looking at the SAM measurements of atmospheric trace gases, and the gases evolved from solid samples along with their isotopic composition. Methane is one such trace constituent, as its presence could signify either biological activity or complex water-rock reactions. By combining the SAM data on trace gases and the noble gases with mineralogical, geologic and environmental data collected by other instruments on MSL, I’ll be examining the question of habitability and the climate evolution of Mars.”

Atreya states MSL is his most exciting Mars mission to date.

Ultimately, Curiosity’s findings will be combined with findings from previous and current missions. This information, Atreya hopes, will be applied to extrasolar planets, which are planets outside the solar system. Armed with knowledge of the planets around our Sun, such as Mars, scientists can begin to study the possibility of life on extrasolar planets.

“We want to find out how life began here or elsewhere,” Atreya says. “These are very profound, deep questions and with these kind of experiments, we’re beginning to inch our way to addressing those questions.”

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