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Mars Curiosity's ‘History Making’ Discovery Revealed, With a Caveat

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity used a mechanism on its robotic arm to dig up five scoopfuls of soil, analyzing it with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments inside the rover. (NASA/JPL-Caltech) NASA's Mars rover Curiosity used a mechanism on its robotic arm to dig up five scoopfuls of soil, analyzing it with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments inside the rover. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)



NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has discovered organic compounds on the surface of Mars. Results from the rover’s first complete soil analysis since arriving on the Red Planet showed “water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances,” the space agency announced in a statement on Monday.

NASA was unwilling to say definitively whether the organics are the byproduct of chemical processes on Mars itself. There remains a possibility that the compounds, which might indicate Mars once supported life, travelled to Mars with Curiosity or fell to the planet from space. For now, NASA is being careful not to overstate its find.

"We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy “but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater.”

Monday’s announcement came on the first day of the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Last week, John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the mission, set off wild anticipation about what the rover team would announce during the conference when he told NPR’s Joe Palca that his team had found something “for the history books.”

According to NBC News, Grotzinger now says that his earlier comments were misunderstood:

"What I've learned from this is that you have to be careful about what you say and even more careful about how you say it. We're doing science at the speed of science [but] we live in a world that's sort of at the pace of Instagrams. The enthusiasm that we had, that I had, that our whole team has about what's going on here ... I think it was just misunderstood."

Curiosity, a 1-ton robotic science laboratory, arrived on Mars Aug 5. It is the first rover capable of scooping and analyzing Martian soil samples. Its two-year mission is to determine whether conditions in Mar’s Gale Crater ever supported microbial life.

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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