Soil samples collected from Mars by the NASA rover Curiosity contain several percent water, as reported in a recent edition of the journal Science
“One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” Laurie Leshin, dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said in a NASA press release.
Leshin further said that if you could heat just a cubic foot of Martian dirt, you could actually get approximately two pints of waters, “like two water bottles you’d take to the gym.”
“And this dirt on Mars is interesting because it seems to be about the same everywhere you go. If you are a human explorer, this is really good news because you can quite easily extract water from almost anywhere,” she said in the press release.
Curiosity’s mission to discover whether life existed on Mars was given a boost when samples released significant amounts of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and sulfur on heating. Having landed in Gale Crater, Mars, on Aug. 6, 2012, Curiosity has the capability to gather and process soil samples using a wide range of analytical equipment known as the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. SAM identifies compounds and ratios of different isotopes of elements.
“By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars,” says Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in the press release.
SAM also discovered a high dose of deuterium in the soil water; deuterium is a “heavy” isotope of hydrogen containing one neutron and one proton as opposed to the “normal” no-neutron hydrogen atom. The water in the Martian atmosphere also contains a similar ratio of deuterium, which Dr. Leshin points out as the soil “acting like a bit of a sponge and absorbing water from the atmosphere.”
In the study, conducted by 34 researchers, they scooped up the soil and fed it into SAM where it was heated to 1,535 degrees F (835 C). Cooking up the compounds revealed the presence of carbonate that forms in the presence of water.
“Mars has kind of a global layer, a layer of surface soil that has been mixed and distributed by frequent dust storms. So a scoop of this stuff is basically a microscopic Mars rock collection,” said Dr. Leshin in the press release. “If you mix many grains of it together, you probably have an accurate picture of typical Martian crust. By learning about it in any one place you’re learning about the entire planet.”
Curiosity has currently covered about 20 percent of its planned 5.3-mile (8.5 km) trek to its ultimate destination, Mount Sharp.
With these results, it looks like the volunteers of the Mars One mission or other human explorers won’t have trouble finding water on the red planet with which to grow, feed, and produce power.