Mars Curiosity rover finds water, simple carbon compounds — but no organics

Scott Sutherland
December 4, 2012

NASA released their update on the Mars Curiosity rover yesterday, but it didn't have the exciting news that many were anticipating. The rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument had detected some simply carbon compounds in its analysis of the scoop of soil it took, but definitely did not find evidence of organic compounds.

"We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater," said Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for the SAM instrument.

The SAM instrument did detect a few things of note, though.

The first was water molecules. It wasn't enough water to indicate free-flowing water on the surface, or even just under the surface, and it wasn't seen as anything particularly unusual, however there were more of these water molecules there than the scientists thought there would be.

More Mars news:

The second was a chemical known as perchlorate — which is made up of chlorine and oxygen atoms. This highly-reactive chemical compound has been detected on Mars by other missions, such as the Phoenix lander and even the original Viking landers. When the SAM instrument heated the soil sample, the perchlorate reacted with other chemicals in the instrument and produced 'chlorinated methane compounds' — the simple carbon compounds that were detected. It's likely that the chlorine is Martian, however the source of the carbon is unknown. It appears as thought there's just as good a chance it's of Earth origin (hitching a ride along with Curiosity) as it is of Mars origin, but even if it is from Mars, it still isn't a definitive sign that life exists there or even existed there in the past.

For that kind of find, we're just going to have to be patient.

So, why all the excitement and fervor leading up to this?

It's been a long-standing fact that those of us with more nerdy or geeky tendencies (such as your truly) get excited about things that make your average person shrug their shoulders. So, when John Grotzinger, the man in charge of the Curiosity mission, gushed about the data that the rover had sent back, he was apparently just referring to how good the data set was and how well the SAM instrument was performing. However, since that isn't exactly Earth-shattering news to the average person, the assumption was naturally that he was referring to something IN the data set, so Curiosity must have discovered something monumental.

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On a personal note, I'm finding every aspect of the Curiosity mission fascinating. Even if they aren't making mind-blowing new discoveries every day, the exciting thing about this story really is that the rover continues its stellar performance, and it truly is set to make some amazing discoveries in the future.

"We used almost every part of our science payload examining this drift," said Grotzinger, in the NASA press release. "The synergies of the instruments and richness of the data sets give us great promise for using them at the mission's main science destination on Mount Sharp."

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