Studying Science on Mars

High school students are prototyping Mars rovers to simulate the six science discovery made by the Curiosity Mars Rover.  Students are trained to work on simulated “Tiger Teams” to support NASA.

Curiosity Rover Results:

This image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill.

First Curiosity Drilling Sample in the Scoop
#1 A Suitable Home for Life: The Curiosity rover finds that ancient Mars had the right chemistry to support living microbes. Curiosity finds sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon– key ingredients necessary for life–in the powder sample drilled from the “Sheepbed” mudstone in Yellowknife Bay. The sample also reveals clay minerals and not too much salt, which suggests fresh, possibly drinkable water once flowed there.Read More:


Grotzinger, et al., Habitability, Taphonomy, and the Search for Organic Carbon on Mars, Science, 343(6160):386-387, doi:10.1126/science.1249944, 2014.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity drilled into this rock target, "Cumberland," during the 279th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (May 19, 2013) and collected a powdered sample of material from the rock's interior.

‘Cumberland’ Target Drilled by Curiosity
#2 Organic Carbon Found in Mars Rocks: Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, and they were discovered on Mars after a long search by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument in a powdered rock sample from the “Sheepbed” mudstone in “Yellowknife Bay.” The finding doesn’t necessarily mean there is past or present life on Mars, but it shows that raw ingredients existed for life to get started there at one time. It also means that ancient organic materials can be preserved for us to recognize and study today.Read More:


Freissinet, C., et al., Organic Molecules in the Sheepbed Mudstone, Gale Crater, Mars, JGR, 120(3):495-514, doi: 10.1002/2014JE004737, 2015.

description" content="This illustration portrays possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars.

Possible Methane Sources and Sinks
#3 Present and Active Methane in Mars’ Atmosphere: The Tunable Laser Spectrometer within the SAM instrument detected a background level of atmospheric methane and observed a ten-fold increase in methane over a two-month period. The discovery of methane is exciting because methane can be produced by living organisms or by chemical reactions between rock and water, for example. Which process is producing methane on Mars? What caused the brief and sudden increase?Read More:


Webster, et al., Mars Methane Detection and Variability at Gale Crater, Science, 347(6220):415-417, doi:10.1126/science.1261713, 2015.

This image shows a backward-looking view of an astronaut in a white spacesuit hiking over reddish sand and rocks on Mars. A gray plume of smoke rises from a fumarole behind the astronaut.

Prepare for human exploration
#4 Radiation Could Pose Health Risks for Humans: During her trip to Mars, Curiosity experienced radiation levels exceeding NASA’s career limit for astronauts. The Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument on Curiosity found that two forms of radiation pose potential health risks to astronauts in deep space. One is galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), particles caused by supernova explosions and other high-energy events outside the solar system. The other is solar energetic particles (SEPs) associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun. NASA will use Curiosity’s data to design missions to be safe for human explorersRead More:


Zeitlin, C., et al., Measurements of Energetic Particle Radiation in Transit to Mars on the Mars Science Laboratory, Science, 340(6136):1080-1084, doi:10.1126/science.1235989, 2013.Hassler, D.M., et al., Mars’ Surface Radiation Environment Measured with the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover, Science, 343(6169), 1244797, doi:10.1126/science.1244797, 2014.

This self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013).

Curiosity Self-Portrait at ‘John Klein’
#5 A Thicker Atmosphere and More Water in Mars’ Past: The SAM instrument suite has found Mars’ present atmosphere to be enriched in the heavier forms (isotopes) of hydrogen, carbon, and argon. These measurements indicate that Mars has lost much of its original atmosphere and inventory of water. This loss occurred to space through the top of the atmosphere, a process currently being observed by the MAVEN orbiter.Read More:


Mahaffy. P.R., Abundance and isotopic composition of gases in the martian atmosphere from the Curiosity rover, Science, 341(6143):263-266, doi:10.1126/science.1237966, 2013.Webster, et al., Mars Methane Detection and Variability at Gale Crater, Science, 347(6220):415-417, doi:10.1126/science.1261713, 2015.

NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named "Hottah" after Hottah Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories.

Remnants of Ancient Streambed on Mars
#6 Curiosity Finds Evidence of An Ancient Streambed: The rocks found by Curiosity are smooth and rounded and likely rolled downstream for at least a few miles. They look like a broken sidewalk, but they are actually exposed bedrock made of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate. They tell a story of a steady stream of flowing water about knee deep.

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