Thursday, November 29, 2012

How the Curiosity Rover SAM Module Works.


What Does the SAM Unit on the Mars Rover Do?


The big news from Mars these days is the Mars Curiosity Rover which is currently rolling around the surface poking at rocks and just making headlines every time it does anything.  At the heart of our little roving friend, and one of the main points of the operation is a device called SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars.)  This guy, was one of the last instruments turned on on the rover and NASA got so excited when it started returning  data that they are refusing to tell anyone what the found.  But, what the hell is SAM and why is it so exciting?

Curiosity Rover SAM Module Explained
Curiosity:  SAM is in the lower front

So What's the Answer?:

SAM (Sample Analysis on Mars) is actually three different instruments rolled into one.  Two different kinds of spectrometer and a chromatograph.  This is really the heart of the mission.  Each of these devices is capable of  heating dirt and othe materials then "sniffing" them in order to tell you what they are made of.  

On Earth, these devices are used to test for pollution in water and soil, tests for explosives and drugs and a whole lot of pharmaceutical research.  We here at the Facility for Research Facilitation (FRF) actually had a vial of ash from Mount St. Helens seized by the police and sent for "sniffing" by a spectrometer in case we had invented a new form of crack.  We hadn't but we're still very upset that our souvenir was set on fire in the name of justice.

Back to the rover.  The reason that the SAM is so important is that some chemical compounds are found almost exclusively in the presence of life forms.  Chlorophyll, has only been found in plants and free Oxygen is very rare in the universe except in the presence of life.  The list of these chemicals is really quite large.  By being able to look at a sample three ways til Friday and by using tools that can look the full chemical make-up of a sample, the SAM unit on the Mars Rover is the Earth's best and first real chance to verify life on another planet. 

Will they do it?  We here at the FRF are checking the news everyday.

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