NASA Curiosity chief says Rover team on verge of 'historic' announcement

John Grotzinger, principal investigator for Curiosity said in a radio interview, "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

The head of the Curiosity team says it is on the verge of a 'historic' announcement (Image: NASA)

The team behind Nasa's Mars Curiosity Rover has said that it is on the verge of making a 'historic' announcement.

John Grotzinger, principal investigator for Curiosity said in a radio interview, "This data is going to be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

"We're getting data as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting. The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down."

The interview, with America's National Public Radio (NPR) suggested that the 'historic' data comes from the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument - SAM - a combination instrument with the ability to detect chemicals relevant to life.

[Related: NASA says New York-sized iceberg 'imminent']

Located inside the rover, SAM examines the chemistry of samples it ingests, checking particularly for chemistry relevant to whether an environment can support life.

Curiosity's robotic arm delivered SAM's first taste of Martian soil to an inlet port on the rover deck on Nov. 9.

During the following two days, SAM used mass spectrometry, gas chromatography and laser spectrometry to analyze the sample. It has now gathered five samples - and is carrying them for further analysis.

NASA now seems keen to downplay the 'historic' nature of the discovery.

"John was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John's office last week. He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far," spokesman Guy Webster told AFP.

"The scientists want to gain confidence in the findings before taking them outside of the science team. As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books," Webster said.

The SAM team continues to analyse samples taken from the area called 'Rocknest'.

Although Curiosity has departed the Rocknest patch of windblown sand and dust where it scooped up soil samples in recent weeks, the sample-handling mechanism on the rover's arm is still holding some soil from the fifth and final scoop collected at Rocknest.

The rover is carrying this sample so it can be available for analysis by instruments within the rover if scientists choose that option in coming days.

"We received good data from our first solid sample," said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

"We have a lot of data analysis to do."

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity completed a touch-and-go inspection of one rock on Sunday, Nov. 18, then pivoted and, on the same day, drove toward a new overlook location.

Last week, Curiosity drove for the first time after spending several weeks in soil-scooping activities at one location.

On Friday, Nov. 16, the rover drove 6.2 feet to get within arm's reach of a rock called "Rocknest 3."

On Sunday, it touched that rock with the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on its arm, and took two 10-minute APXS readings of data about the chemical elements in the rock.

Then Curiosity stowed its arm and drove 83 feet (25.3 meters) eastward toward a target called "Point Lake."

"We have done touches before, and we've done goes before, but this is our first 'touch-and-go' on the same day," said Curiosity Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "It is a good sign that the rover team is getting comfortable with more complex operational planning, which will serve us well in the weeks ahead."

During a Thanksgiving break this weekend, the team will use Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) from Point Lake to examine possible routes and targets to the east.

A priority is to choose a rock for the first use of the rover's hammering drill, which will collect samples of powder from rock interiors.