A NASA handout photo shows the three left wheels of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combined in two images that were taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on September 9, 2012. (Photo : Reuters)
In a press conference today, NASA officials released the first results from analysis of soil samples taken by the Mars Curiosity rover.
Using gas chromatography and a laser spectrometer, Curiosity carefully scooped Martian soil into a test chamber and vaporized some of it, analyzing the gases released.
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It found more water than expected, some sulfur, and both oxygen and chlorine, which may have made up a compound called perchlorate, which scientists have found in other parts of Mars.
Perchlorates break down organic molecules, potentially making it more difficult to find any, if they ever existed.
Rampant speculation last week over Curiosity's latest discoveries had people wondering if it had found evidence of life.
It hasn't. The soils sample didn't contain the complex organic molecules scientists expect to see when life is present.
While Curiosity did find some simple organic compounds, NASA hasn't yet ruled out the possibility that those were introduced by contamination from Earth.
"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, principal investigator for Curiosity's sample analysis instrument. "We have to be very careful that both the carbon and the chlorine are coming from Mars."
However, this is only the first soil sample taken, and scientists were very careful to try to find a very ordinary sample, one that would be representative of the most average dirt on the planet.
Now that they've established a baseline, scientists can begin to look for outliers.
And they've just, literally, scratched the surface. The small troughs dug by Curiosity when it took samples are less than an inch deep. While the surface dust is lighter in color, just below the surface it gets much darker and the grains are bigger and clump together. Who knows what may lie deeper?
NASA scientists are excited to see, but they'll take their time. "We're doing science at the pace of science," said project scientist John Grotzinger. "We're just going to have to be patient.
Curiosity will continue its analysis over the next few weeks. Early next year it will begin the trek to Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high peak where scientists hope to find more interesting samples.