Space Update: Curiosity Found Something Organic, But What? – “One for the History Books”

At today’s American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, California, NASA scientists announced they had found evidence of organic matter in samples analyzed on Curiosity, the Martian rover currently exploring Gale Crater. This included chlorine, sulfur and water from scooped dirt studied by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on board the robot. The scientists put a condition on their discovery. It could be contamination brought from Earth on board Curiosity. Or it may not. Is it organic compounds? Not saying….maybe….could be the stuff that suggests primitive life……or a Martian chemistry previously unknown to us here on Earth.

Boy does this sound like Viking all over again with the Label Release Experiment. Different experiment but the same controversial results. Is this geochemistry or evidence of bacterial life in the past or present? If we are interested in finding life on Mars why do we keep on devising experiments that are not definitive in proving life exists there or not? Why do we keep on doing indirect experimentation?

This is what we know so far about what samples SAM and the other instruments on Curiosity analyzed. Curiosity did several test runs to ensure that any sampling would be free of potential terrestrial contaminants. You can see four scoops to the left of the rover before scoop 5, the one SAM cooked that the scientists described as a “garden variety” dirt sample. When the sample was heated SAM studied the out gassing to determine its chemical makeup. What SAM found was chlorinated methane compounds with some carbon organic material…..”organic compounds” that could be Martian or terrestrial in origin. But the “one for the history books” reference appears to be “misunderstood.” It is the process employed and not the findings that led to that remark. Nonetheless Curiosity has just started on its grand adventure and given us a tantalizing glimpse of the chemistry of Mars dirt and it sure is coming up with an interesting signature.

I wonder if any Vegas odds makers are betting on the findings – life or no-life, odds 5:1?

The sample studied by SAM came from scoop 5 seen to the left of the rover highlighted in blue.                                                Source: JPL/NASA

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...


  • Niccolo5

    I must have missed whatever it was that was “one for the history books.” We don’t need to spend a billion dollars to conclude that Mars might have had organic life.