This photo, taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, shows Mars' Gale Crater, where the rover has taken samples for chemical analysis. Scientists believe that at some point in the very distant past, there was a riverbed here.
This photo, taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, shows Mars' Gale Crater, where the rover has taken samples for chemical analysis. Scientists believe that at some point in the very distant past, there was a riverbed here. AP
NASA is finally receiving data on Martian soil samples from Curiosity, its rover currently traversing the red planet. The results from the soil samples hint at something exciting, but rover scientists are making very sure not to raise expectations.
NASA had always planned to present early results from the mission this week at a press conference. But expectations for the press conference soared after one of the instruments onboard the rover appeared to detect organic molecules.
Having already found signs of water on Mars, finding signs of organic material would be another piece of evidence that there might — might, might — have once been life on Mars.
Paul Mahaffy, the lead scientist on Curiosity's main analysis instrument, known as the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, device, says no news yet.
"SAM has no definitive detection to report of organic compounds with these first set of experiments," he told a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on Monday.
Mahaffy says SAM definitely saw simple organic compounds — compounds made of carbon — when it analyzed its first soil sample last month. It also saw compounds made with chlorine.
"The reason we're saying we have no definitive detection of Martian organics," Mahaffy says, "is that we have to be very careful to make sure both the carbon and the chlorine are coming from Mars."
Mahaffy says NASA cleaned the instrument before it left Earth, and cleaned it some more once it got to Mars. But he says it's still possible the carbon that the instrument is seeing may be a contaminant from Earth.
And Mahaffy emphasized that the carbon compounds — if they really are in the soil sample — may simply be inorganic carbon created by a nonbiological chemical reaction. But if Curiosity did find carbon molecules, even inorganic carbon, that would be a sign that organic carbon could potentially exist on Mars and might be discoverable.
Curiosity's chief scientist, John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, said it will take a while to make sense of all the data coming from the rover's suite of instruments.
"There's not going to be one single moment where we all stand up and, on the basis of a single measurement, have a hallelujah moment," he says.
Grotzinger says that's just the way it works in science.