Scientists are in the process of confirming that there was once life on Mars—with the help of an Oxford Instruments X-Ray Technology product. Using a drill on its robotic arm, NASA’s Curiosity rover recently collected a second rock sample for analysis by its onboard Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin). Researchers expect to confirm preliminary findings from the first drilling in February, which indicate that the red planet was once favorable to microbial life.
Using X-rays from a specially designed Oxford Instruments X-ray tube inside the CheMin, rocks and soil are studied to provide clues about the planet’s historical climate and geology. The Curiosity prepares samples by drilling into rocks, collecting the resulting fine powder, sieving it, and then delivering it to a sample holder. An X-ray beam as fine as a human hair is then directed through the powdered material to an X-ray sensor that establishes the mineralogy of the sample by X-ray diffraction. Mineral composition reveals environmental conditions that existed during its formation, in particular, what role water, an essential ingredient for life, played in the mineral’s development.
Scientists have already identified key chemicals for life, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon. This evidence suggests that the drilling area was at the end of an ancient river system or lake bed that could have supported micro-organisms. Moreover, this chemical composition is similar to that on Earth.
The Curiosity is the most advanced planetary robot ever designed, according to John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. It is no surprise that Oxford Instruments is a part of its fully operating laboratory. In addition to helping us learn more about Mars, this groundbreaking research is also relevant to Earthly applications, such as mineral exploration and archaeology.