After fully analysing samples of soil on Mars for the first time, NASA scientists announced that the Curiosity rover found traces of water, sulfur, and chlorine, but they are not necessarily of Martian origin. The results come from the biggest instrument on the Mars rover called the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, which can process samples of Martain sand, rocks, and atmosphere and figure out what minerals and chemicals are in them.
There had been a lot of build-up to the announcement ever since chief Curiosity scientist John Grotzinger was quoted by NPR as saying the SAM instrument had made a discovery for “the history books.”
SAM’s Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy set the record straight in a news conference at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco today, Dec. 3. Scientists found “no definitive detection of organic compounds,” Mahaffy told reporters.
To clear up any confusion, this means that organic substances—which could be associated with life on Mars—are there, but scientists need to make sure they are originally from Mars and were not brought from Earth by Curiosity.
“SAM tentatively identified the oxygen and chlorine compound perchlorate. This is a reactive chemical previously found in arctic Martian soil by NASA’s Phoenix Lander. Reactions with other chemicals heated in SAM formed chlorinated methane compounds—one-carbon organics that were detected by the instrument. The chlorine is of Martian origin, but it is possible the carbon may be of Earth origin, carried by Curiosity and detected by SAM’s high sensitivity design,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote in a statement.
Detecting carbon is important because it’s one of three ingredients necessary for life to exist, in addition to water and a source of energy.
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