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Martian organics? Too soon to tell, NASA says

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Dec 4, 2012, 0:00 UTC

Sen—The Mars Curiosity mission has yet to find definitive evidence of organics on the Red Planet, but the rover dug up something interesting concerning perchlorate.

The rover's analysis will require follow-up work in the coming months, NASA officials said Monday as they emphasized the need for patience.

Curiosity found evidence of chlorinated methane compounds - a form of organics - after taking scoopfuls of sand from a Martian drift dubbed Rocknest, heating the sand in an internal oven and measuring the gases produced.

Mars Curiosity scoops

Mars Curiosity took several scoopfuls from a Martian sand drift dubbed Rocknest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 

NASA officials said the chlorine probably came from a form of perchlorate in the dirt. Perchlorate is a toxic substance used in rocket fuel. The Mars Phoenix mission first discovered it on the Red Planet in 2008.

However, the carbon's origins are a little more unclear. It could be contamination from Earth, or perhaps a hitchhiker from some flying space bit that hit Mars.

"We simply don't know if it's indigenous to Mars, or not," said John Grotzinger, the chief project scientist for Curiosity, in a televised press briefing Monday. "It's going to take some time to work through that."

Organics are chemicals containing carbon. While they are considered the basic elements of life, they are not always necessarily proof of life. 

Further, they are fragile and easily destroyed in the harsh, radiation-heavy Martian environment, NASA officials said. However, organics would have a better chance of survival if they are shielded away from the surface.

Curiosity also found water and sulfur in the first samples of Martian sand that it analyzed.

"Detection of the substances during this early phase of the mission demonstrates the laboratory's capability to analyze diverse soil and rock samples over the next two years," NASA stated.

The briefing, at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting in San Francisco, capped weeks of speculation about what Mars Curiosity had found.

A report from National Public Radio in November implied that the rover dug up something big on the Red Planet, spurring a media flurry.

"You have to be careful about what you say, and more careful about how you say it," acknowledged Grotzinger, who was quoted in the NPR story. 

The enthusiasm that we had, that I had, that our whole team had about what's going on here ... I think it was just misunderstood."