'Curiosity' discovery on Mars is less than remarkable

mars-rocknest-nasa.jpgThe Martian soil contains organic material of as-yet-undetermined origin, as the scientists already knew from previous missions. That was the big NASA reveal today, advance-billed a few weeks ago by a breathless NPR reporter as something sure to be historic. Scientists are curious and impressed by the experiment conducted on board the Curiosity rover, but that's about it for now.

From the New York Times:

By design, it was an unremarkable pinch of dirt, more to test the apparatus than to make discoveries.

Ken Edgett, principal investigator for a camera that takes close-up images, described the soil as fine sand. “It’s very dry-looking stuff, just what you’d expect,” he said. “The grain size is sort of like these artificial sweeteners in term of size, finer than sugar but coarser than something like flour. The surface of the drift was covered with coarser sand – more like the size of salt grains on those big hot pretzels you can get.”

The mineralogical composition was similar to that found by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers during their years of exploration elsewhere on Mars, suggesting that this sample can serve as baseline for what covers much of the planet.

Over at a Wired science blog, they are no more wowed:

In its first analysis of Martian soil, NASA’s Curiosity rover detected perchlorate salts and simple organic compounds but the probe’s science team can not yet determine if the carbon in these materials is indigenous to Mars.

“When we look in the soil we see a bunch of chemicals in there,” said geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, project scientist for the mission, during a NASA press conference...


Even if the carbon came from Mars, there will still be a long road to figuring out how it came to be in the soil. The most likely explanation is that it rained to the surface on meteorites and comets, which commonly contain many complex organic compounds. Even if the carbon molecules were created on Mars, it will take time to determine if they are traces of past life.

“Curiosity’s middle name is patience,” said Grotzinger. “And we all have to have a healthy dose of that."

Excellent. We'll check back in a few years. Meanwhile, there was some unexpected news from space reported today at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Voyager I, the exploration craft still sailing out toward interstellar space 30 years after beaming back photos of Saturn and Jupiter, has surprised scientists by encountering a new zone at the edge of our solar system. Eryn Brown in the LA Times:

It had been thought that the NASA probe was already passing through the outermost section of the solar system on its way toward the heliopause — the boundary where the solar wind ends and interstellar space begins. For that reason, the existence of yet another district at our cosmic neighborhood's edge was completely unexpected, said Stamatios Krimigis, a solar physicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and leader of the team that operates Voyager's low-energy charged particle instrument.

"Nature is imaginative," he said Monday.

Photo: Mars rock image from Curiosity last week via JPL

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