Hunting for Organic Molecules on Mars

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Did Mars once have life? To help answer that question, an
international team of scientists created an incredibly powerful miniature
chemistry laboratory, set to ride on the next Mars rover.

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The instrument, called the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer Mass Spectrometer (MOMA-MS), will form a key part of the ExoMars Rover, a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos. A mass spectrometer is
crucial to send to Mars because it reveals the elements that can be found
there. A Martian mass spectrometer takes a sample, typically of powdered rock,
and distinguishes
the different elements in the sample based on their mass
.

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After 8 years of
designing, building, and testing, NASA scientists and engineers from NASA’s
Goddard Space Flight Center said goodbye to their tiny chemistry lab and
shipped it to Italy in a big pink box. Building a tiny instrument capable of
conducting chemical analysis is difficult in any setting, but designing one
that has to launch on a huge
rocket, fly through the vacuum of space, and then operate on a planet
with entirely different pressure and temperature systems? That’s herculean. And
once on Mars, MOMA has a very important job to do. NASA Goddard Center Director
Chris Scolese said, “This is the first intended life-detecting instrument that
we have sent to Mars since Viking.”

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The MOMA instrument will be capable of detecting a wide variety of
organic molecules. Organic compounds are commonly associated with life, although
they can be created by non-biological processes as well. Organic molecules
contain carbon and hydrogen, and can include oxygen, nitrogen, and other
elements.

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To find these molecules on Mars, the MOMA team had to take
instruments that would normally occupy a couple of workbenches in a chemistry
lab and shrink them down to roughly the size of a toaster oven so they would be
practical to install on a rover.

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MOMA-MS, the mass spectrometer on the ExoMars rover, will build on
the accomplishments from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), an
instrument suite on the Curiosity rover
that
includes a mass spectrometer. SAM collects and analyzes samples from just below
the surface of Mars while ExoMars will be the first to explore deep beneath the
surface, with a drill capable of taking samples from as deep as two meters
(over six feet). This is important because Mars’s thin atmosphere and spotty
magnetic field offer little protection from space radiation, which can
gradually destroy organic molecules exposed on the surface. However, Martian
sediment is an effective shield, and the team expects to find greater
abundances of organic molecules in samples from beneath the surface.

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On completion of the instrument, MOMA Project Scientist Will
Brinckerhoff praised his colleagues, telling them, “You have had the right
balance of skepticism, optimism, and ambition. Seeing this come together has
made me want to do my best.”

In addition to the launch of the ESA and Roscosmos ExoMars
Rover, in 2020, NASA plans to launch the Mars 2020 Rover, to search for signs
of past microbial life. We are all looking forward to seeing what these two
missions will find when they arrive on our neighboring planet.

Learn more about MOMA HERE.

Learn more about ExoMars HERE.

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