The cultural phenomenon of the so-called selfie has become so prevalent that now, even robots have taken to snapping them, and on another planet, no less. Witness this remarkable image taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover on October 11, 2019 in a region of Mars called “Glen Etive” (pronounced “glen EH-tiv”).
The selfie serves as rare visual documentation of the rover performing a special chemistry experiment in which Curiosity drilled two holes visible in the center-left foreground of the photo. After “powderizing” rock samples with the drill, the rover analyzes their chemical composition and drops them into a lab located inside the rover called Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), an instrument suite that hails from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where it was constructed with help from NASA partners.
The rover’s mobile belly-based lab has 74 small containers for testing samples. “Most of the cups function as miniature ovens that heat the samples,” wrote NASA/JPL in a press release. “SAM then ‘sniffs’ the gases that bake off, looking for chemicals that hold clues about the Martian environment billions of years ago, when the planet was friendlier to microbial life.”
Wet Chemistry On Mars
Nine of SAM’s 74 containers are filled with solvents that the rover can use for special “wet chemistry” experiments. “These chemicals make it easier for SAM to detect certain carbon-based molecules important to the formation of life, called organic compounds,” describes NASA/JPL. “Because there’s a limited number of wet-chemistry cups, the science team has been saving them for just the right conditions. In fact, the experiment at Glen Etive is only the second time Curiosity has performed wet chemistry since touching down on Mars in August 2012.”
Glen Etive is part of a region on Mars referred to as the “clay-bearing unit.” According to NASA/JPL, clay-based rocks are especially capable of conserving chemical compounds that would otherwise be at the mercy of environmental radiation. “The science team is intrigued to see which organic compounds, if any, have been preserved in the rocks at Glen Etive. Understanding how this area formed will give them a better idea of how the Martian climate was changing billions of years ago,” said the space agency.
According to SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “SAM’s data is extremely complex and takes time to interpret. But we’re all eager to see what we can learn from this new location, Glen Etive.”
Meanwhile, the 57 individual photographs that make up the composite shot for the selfie were taken by a camera on the rover called the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which was constructed by the Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. The rover has a built-in selfie stick in the form of a robotic arm, which was digitally removed from the images that were compiled to make the panoramic photo.