Weeks of rumor and speculation were put to rest as a panel of NASA scientists announced the most recent findings from Mars rover Curiosity. The moving laboratory ran several scoops of Martian soil through a series of tests and has discovered what NASA scientists describe as "organic compounds." This may come as a let-down to those hoping for an announcement of life on Mars, but it is a big step in the ongoing exploration of the Martian surface.
At a location known as the Rocknest Wind Drift, Curiosity took several scoops of sandy, Martian soil and analyzed them in a variety of ways.
"The results are an unprecedented look at the chemical diversity of the area," said Mars Science Laboratory scientist Michael Meyer, who also stressed that the data "forms a solid baseline for continued exploration."
Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for Curiosity's SAM instrument, described the experiment as the rover's "first gulp of Mars material." This was the first time since landing in August that Mars rover Curiosity has processed soil within its one-ton frame.
The most intriguing part of the announcement, which took place at the American Geophysical Union's annual fall meeting, was the statement that Curiosity has discovered "organic compounds" in the Martian dirt.
In a true demonstration of scientific rigor, Mahaffy began his speech by saying there was "no definitive detection to support organic compounds" on Mars. He then began to explain how Curiosity's latest experiments show levels of carbon and chlorine in the soil that suggest the presence of "organics" on the Martian surface.
"We have to be very careful that both the carbon and the chlorine are coming from Mars," Mahaffy said. The panel of NASA scientists stressed that there was not enough data to state definitively that the compounds were indigenous to the Red Planet. It is possible that the trace levels of organics are hold-overs from Earth that made the trip to Mars with the rover. Another possibility is that the compounds landed on Mars from unknown sources in space.
"Curiosity's middle name is patience," said project scientist John Grotzinger. "We all have to have a healthy dose of that."
Calling the enthusiasm and speculation over the NASA announcement "misunderstood," Grotzinger told reporters that NASA is not expecting any "hallelujah moments" from Curiosity.
"We're doing science at the pace of science," Grotzinger said. "We're just going to have to be patient.
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