Mars Curiosity Rover: Did NASA Discover Organic Compounds In Soil Sample? [VIDEO]

By Danny Choy on December 3, 2012 2:56 PM EST

Martian soil
Two soil samples were scooped from Rocknest. 1.6-inches-wide scoops were gathered by the arm of the NASA Mars Curiosity rover in October 2012. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA provided a webcast today that broadcasted the annual press conference at the annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophyiscal Union in San Francisco. A particularly high profile press conference, NASA Mars rover Curiosity has found a remarkable discovery "for the history books" last month when it studied soil samples at Rocknest, an unique Martian surface located within the enormous Gale crater. However, NASA has kept its lips sealed on the findings - until today's conference.

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According to the meeting, Mars Curiosity rover has finally completed its very first analysis on Martian soil. Analysis begun with the APXS instrument and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the Curiosity rover's arm. Studies revealed that the soil composition is very close in composition to previously seen soils from NASA rovers Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity.

MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett explained what the imager saw: "Active drifts on Mars look darker on the surface. This is an older drift that has had time to be inactive, letting the crust form and dust accumulate on it."

Crucially, analysis on the soil has caused excited scientists of the space agency to announce that the first soil sample revealed evidence of simple organic compounds on Mars. Specifically, the soil specimen retrieved from the rover's arm revealed traces of compounds including water, sulfur and chlorine-containing substances. According to NASA, it's not unusual for SAM to find water molecules bound to sand or dust on Mars. However, NASA says the quantity of water molecules were higher than anticipated.

The soil was analyzed by the rover's on-board laboratories including the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite, and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM analyzed gases found in the soil after inserting a sample into a tiny oven. The main task of SAM is to identify the existence of organic compounds, an essential factor needed to determine the existence of Martian life.

Quick to quell rumors, SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy said during a press release at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, "We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater."

However, SAM did "tentatively" identify an oxygen and chlorine compound known as perchlorate. Perchlorate is a reactive chemical that was found by NASA's Phoneix Lander. Mixture with other chemicals heated in SAM caused it to form chlorinated methane compounds.

So why is NASA identifying the discover of perchlorate as "tentative"? The Curiosity might have accidently brought this organic carbon from Earth. What's more, even if NASA does confirm that it is not Earth derived, another analysis must be performed to prove the perchlorate sample did in fact originate from Mars. Finally, another study must be done to make sure the carbon is actually biological.

On the discover of the perchlorate, "We used almost every part of our science payload examining this drift," said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "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."

For more insight on the properties of the Martian soil, be sure to take a look at the video narration below:

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