An ‘earth-shaking discovery’: what has the Curiosity rover found on Mars?

Gravel deposited in an ancient streambed at the Curiosity landing site. Have organics also now been found? Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

There is some potentially exciting news from the Curiosity rover – according to John Grotzinger, principal investigator for the mission, analysis of the first soil samples has produced some provocative results.

In an interview posted this morning in an article on the NPR web site, Grotzinger explains that the findings have come from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments which have been analyzing the first soil samples just delivered to the on-board laboratory.

Referring to the results as “earth-shaking,” Grotzinger says, “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.” He adds, “We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting. The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down.”

So what has Curiosity found? It’s worth noting that this preliminary news comes from the mission team itself, and is not just some vague internet rumour. But we will have to be a bit patient. The information isn’t being publicized yet; the science team wants to continue examining and re-examining the samples to be sure that the results aren’t a fluke. Going by the hints given so far though, it sounds like the science is fairly confident at this point, but noting that it may be several more weeks before the findings are announced.

It is quite likely however that organics are involved, as this is one of the primary goals of the mission, and of SAM itself specifically, to find them in the Martian soil at this location if they exist. Curiosity can detect a wide range of organic molecules, including ones that are the building blocks of life (as we know it anyway). SAM can also measure the isotopes of any organic molecules including carbon, which can help to determine their origin.

Several weeks ago it was already announced that Curiosity had found evidence for a “fast-moving stream up to hip-deep” where it is roving right now. This is consistent with previous orbital observations of an ancient channel cutting through the rim of Gale crater, leaving behind an alluvial fan of streambed gravel. If organics have been found, a highly controversial subject of debate since the Viking lander landings in the 1970s, it would be another, and very important, piece of evidence showing that Mars was once much more like Earth than it is now.

What bearing this may have on whether life itself ever existed on Mars isn’t known yet; Curiosity isn’t designed to look for life specifically (unless the cameras see something), but these latest findings would definitely seem to be something thought-provoking.

In the meantime, stay tuned!

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