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Mars rover finds organic compounds, but not life

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 7:38 p.m.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has found complex chemicals in the dusty soil of the Red Planet, including some evidence of organic compounds, one of the basic building blocks of life — but nothing that shows there is or was life on the Red Planet, scientists said on Monday.

The rover, which landed on Mars on Aug. 6, has detected water molecules, sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, NASA team members announced at a highly anticipated news conference at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

But the organic compounds may not have originated on Mars and may instead come from contamination from NASA's instruments. The chemicals were detected using the rover's robotic arm, which scooped soils in the Gale Crater area, and several high-tech devices, including the SAM — or Sample Analysis of Mars — instrument, which analyzes gases that come from dirt and rocks when they are heated in an oven aboard the six-wheeled rover.

“The instrument SAM is working perfectly well and has made this detection of organic compounds, simple organic compounds,” said Curiosity Project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “We don't know if they are indigenous to Mars yet. It's going to take us some time to work through that. I know there's a lot of interest in that, but Curiosity's middle name is patience, and we all have to have a healthy dose of that.”

In November, the science world, media organizations and the Internet crackled with speculation after Grotzinger announced in an interview on NPR: “This data is going to be one for the history books. It's looking really good” and then declined to go into detail. Observers wondered if the rover had detected life on Mars, fossils or some other groundbreaking find.

As the days passed, however, NASA began to dial back expectations, saying that Grotzinger was referring to the two-year mission, rather than one specific find.

“The enthusiasm that we had, that I had, that our whole team had, I think was just misunderstood. There's not much more to say than that,” he said, adding “The first thing I thought is ‘Gosh, I have to be careful about what I say.' ”

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