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Has Curiosity discovered organic compounds on Mars? (pictures)

NASA says the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard Curiosity, which explores molecular and elemental chemistry relevant to life, has made a big discovery.

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James Martin
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What has SAM discovered on Mars?

NASA has made a potentially huge discovery on Mars via Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, NPR reported this week. SAM is the rover's on-board set of chemical analytics tools, tasked with identifying organic compounds -- the carbon-containing building blocks that are the basis for life.

The public will likely have wait till early December as NASA repeats tests to conclusively confirm its still-secret findings. The news is set to be officially released at the next meeting of the American Geophysical Union, set for December 3 to 7 in San Francisco.

The SAM instrument suite consists of a Gas Chromatograph (GC), a Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS), and a Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), as well as systems that manipulate and process samples. SAM can analyze gases, either drawn directly from the atmosphere or extracted from regolith or powdered rock samples by heating or chemically treating the samples. SAM will search for and characterize organic and inorganic molecules important to life on Earth, as well as information about the chemistry of past and present Martian environments.
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Curiosity scoops soil

Divits in the soil surrounding NASA's Curiosity rover seen here are where the robotic arm has dug up soil for analysis that includes testing for organic compounds by SAM. The fifth scoop, in the upper middle divit, was collected on November 9. Each sample is about 2 inches wide.
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Sample Analysis at Mars for Curiosity

SAM, seen here at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, is equipped to analyze samples of material collected by the rover's arm.

It is also the instrument that NASA is crediting with a potentially big -- but still unrevealed -- discovery.
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SAM Instrument at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

SAM is studying the chemistry of rocks, soil, and air as the Curiosity rover investigates the Gale Crater on Mars. SAM was built at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where this image was taken.
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Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument, with the side panels off

Part of the SAM instrument suite, which is analyzing the chemical ingredients in samples of the Martian atmosphere, rocks and soil, is shown here during assembly at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center back in 2010.
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Martian sampling

SAM is supported by a Sample Manipulation System (SMS) and a Chemical Separation and Processing Laboratory (CSPL) that include high conductance and micro valves, gas manifolds with heaters and temperature monitors, chemical and mechanical pumps, carrier gas reservoirs and regulators, pressure monitors, pyrolysis ovens, and chemical scrubbers and getters.

The Mars atmosphere is sampled by CSPL valve and pump manipulations that introduce an appropriate amount of gas through an inlet tube to the SAM instruments. The solid phase materials are sampled by transporting finely sieved materials to one of 74 SMS sample cups that can then be inserted into a SAM oven and thermally processed for release of volatiles.
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Mechanical configuration of SAM

The illustration labels the mechanical configuration of SAM.

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