Mars rover finds organic compounds, not life

The Washington Post /

Published Dec 4, 2012 at 04:00AM

SAN FRANCISCO — The Curiosity Mars rover has discovered something interesting in a scoop of ruddy sand, but NASA scientists say they’re not quite sure what it means.

Sand that was shake-and-baked inside the car-size rover’s chemistry kit bubbled off traces of organic compounds, mission scientists said at a news briefing Monday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Such compounds, made of carbon and chlorine, are of the type that, in some cases, indicate microbes in the soil.

But such compounds also could be contamination from the rover itself — or they may have rained onto the surface inside meteorites, said Paul Mahaffy, a mission scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“It’s unclear if the carbon is Martian or terrestrial,” Mahaffy said.

Further tests will help clarify the source of the chemicals, but mission scientists cautioned that the rover is not equipped to find life itself, only the conditions that may be ripe for life.

If they rule out contamination, the science team will “get into the complex question of whether this is some type of biological material,” said project scientist John Grotzinger. “That’s well down the line for us.”

Jim Bell, president of the Planetary Society, who is not involved in the mission, said searching for life on another planet is difficult. “It’s hard to find (microbial) life here on Earth, which is teeming with it. You’ve got to take samples back to high-tech labs.”