NASA Announces Mars Curiosity’s First Round of Soil Analysis
The take-away message? There’s some very interesting “maybes” but no definite “wows”.
A week or so after the misunderstanding about how “groundbreaking” these findings would actually be, NASA’s Mars rover team announced the results of their first soil sample analysis today. Remember that this rover is primarily an interplanetary geology lab, outfitted with the most advanced mineral chemistry instruments ever plopped down on another planet. So any hints of Mars one day being able to support life are going to start with eating a whole bunch of dirt.
Here’s a quick summary of the recent findings (good summaries at MSNBC and LA Times, too):
These first few rounds of soil samples are useful, but one of their main purposes is to clean out the internal instruments and make sure the onboard, self-contained lab is working correctly. The laser-eye and other instruments are cool, but it’s the stuff inside that will most precisely determine the molecules and elements that exist in Martian soil.
Curiosity processed a few scoops of coarse sand so far, which NASA compared to the big salt grains on a pretzel, from a region of Gale Crater called Rocknest. The machinery is all working fine, and any contaminating substances from Earth have probably been washed out by now.
The rover has found hints of organic molecules (a huge family of carbon-based chemicals that are the precursors to anything that could later lead to life), as well as a chlorine chemical called “perchlorate” (also found by a previous rover in 2008). Normally perchlorate would be toxic, but super-tough microbes could eat it, mayyyyyyyybe … if they also found lots of carbon-based molecules. Which they only have hints of. Really just traces of organics. A “scoche”. Got it?
Otherwise the soil was a pretty unremarkable mix of volcanic crystals, which is not surprising on Mars, since it’s home to many volcanoes, including the Solar System’s biggest. They also found traces of water, which we knew Mars had, and isn’t sufficient for life by itself (even Mercury has water ice!).
The next step is to continue checking this data to make sure - absolutely sure - that the chlorine and carbon aren’t from Earth. Then they need to see if they are just random leftovers from old meteors or dust hitting the red planet. Then, and only then, will they be able to say whether these chlorine-carbon molecules are special.
In the end, this finding is a big “maybe”. But that should not disappoint anyone. Because these early days are about proving that the mission is ready to proceed and that everything is working correctly. And NASA gets an A+ on that. We have 2+ years of experiments, on all kinds of rocks, waiting for us!