Since 2004, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover (MER) robotic geologists have been making important discoveries on Mars with the rovers Spirit (now unresponsive) and Opportunity.
In 2012, the next generation rover, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, aka Curiosity) joined them on the martian surface to investigate the possibility of life on Mars. Beyond looking for evidence of water, Curiosity will assess the habitability of one area of the Martian surface; habitability is the potential of a Martian environment to support life, whether past or present, and the geology, chemistry, mineralogy and environmental conditions of a site all influence its habitability.
Curiosity, which is roughly the size of a small car and thus significantly larger than Spirit or Opportunity (see image below), carries a sophisticated suite of instruments that will work together to investigate all the factors that influence habitability.
As a Co-Investigator on the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments, Meenakshi Wadhwa is one of the scientists guiding Curiosity to interesting targets and interpreting data from the mission.
SAM is aimed at finding and analyzing elements important to life such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen and any organic compounds that contain these elements. SAM’s gas chromatograph separate any mixture of organic compounds Curiosity finds into individual components for identification, while the SAM mass spectrometer and tunable laser spectrometer measure the molecular and isotopic composition of rock and atmospheric samples.
You can learn more about the MSL mission and stay up-to-date on mission developments here!