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.