NASA Mars rover runs first-of-its-kind experiment seeking clues to ancient life

NASA has waited eight long years for this special moment as it investigates whether ancient Mars could have been habitable for alien life.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Enlarge Image

Curiosity snapped this look at its SAM instrument in September 2020.


Venus may be hogging the limelight right now, but Mars refuses to be forgotten in the search for evidence of life beyond our planet. NASA's Curiosity rover finally got the chance to perform a long-awaited experiment designed to look for organic molecules.

Curiosity is busy seeking signs that Mars may have once been habitable for microbial life. The rover's recent SAM TMAH experiment marked a new milestone in that investigation. 

The subject of the test was a bit of powdered rock drilled from a site named "Mary Anning" after a trailblazing English paleontologist from the 1800s. 

The rover uses its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument to detect elements that are necessary for life (such as nitrogen, oxygen and carbon) in martian rock samples. It uses a collection of small cups to analyze powdered samples. Some of the cups heat the rock to collect gases and some contain chemical solvents.

The TMAH part of the experiment refers to the chemical tetramethylammonium hydroxide. Curiosity has only two cups with TMAH, making it an extremely precious commodity on the red planet. 

"TMAH will help our science team identify what fragments of organic (carbon-bearing) materials are present in the clay-rich rock of Mary Anning," wrote NASA atmospheric scientist Scott Guzewich in the Curiosity blog last week.

59 Weird Objects Seen on Mars, Explained

See all photos

The rover team hopes to learn more about the chemistry of ancient Mars, especially now that Curiosity is exploring an intriguing clay-rich area with a likely history of water. Guzewich said the SAM TMAH experiment "could help us understand whether the necessary ingredients for life were present in Gale Crater when it was better termed 'Gale Lake.'"

NASA has sent a series of increasingly more sophisticated rovers to Mars. Curiosity, which landed in 2012, will be joined by the new Perseverance rover in early 2021. It's still an open question as to whether Mars once hosted life, but the rovers' work could bring us some answers.

"The team is now eagerly awaiting results which will take us several months to fully interpret," wrote planetary geologist Ryan Anderson in a mission update last week.