Sniffing out a planet's past
University of Leicester scientists have begun testing the Martian air to build up a picture of the planet's atmosphere.
Earlier this week, Nasa's Curiosity rover started measuring the atmospheric composition for the first time since the Viking landings on the Red Planet in the 1970s.
The robot has been sucking alien air into its Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, which should reveal the concentration of different gases present.
The analysis should give clues to the past chemical make-up of the planet.
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Dr John Bridges, of the University of Leicester's space research centre, is part of a team of academics sifting through the Martian evidence, which is being sent to Earth by Curiosity.
He said the task was an "important job" and would lead to further understanding about the planet.
Dr Bridges said: "This instrument is hoped to provide us with the most accurate analysis of the Mars atmosphere so far achieved."
It is believed Mars may once have contained large bodies of water – a vital component in allowing life to flourish – until its protective magnetic field disappeared some four billion years ago and the water vaporised.
Writing in his blog, Dr Bridges said: "However, the heavy noble gases like xenon and krypton have been less affected by the atmospheric loss processes that have stripped Mars of much of its atmosphere since the planet's magnetic field stopped.
"So, one reason the SAM analyses are important is that when we look at the ratios of the heavy noble gases and their different isotopes, we are in effect studying the ancient atmosphere of Mars when the planet's climate was very different from today's."
The SAM is expect to identify an abundance of carbon dioxide, but will also be looking for traces of methane – discovered by the earlier Viking landers.
Evidence of methane – which should have evaporated – would show that there is a biological or geochemical source which continues to replenish the gas. The Curiosity rover will then continue to look for other elements and atmospheric gases and eventually test for evidence of organic material.
Curiosity has now driven more than 100m from its landing site on the floor of Gale Crater (which is about 96-miles wide) after landing on August 6.
It will travel at a speed of about 10 metres a day until it reaches its goal – Mount Sharp – which rises about 3.4-miles above the floor of the Gale Crater. The ultimate goal of the NASA project is to discover if conditions on Mars ever allowed the existence of microbial life.