Organics on Mars: Curiosity Rover Takes a Soil Sample and Humans Go Wild


Earlier this week, we found out there is organic material on Mars. People subsequently went wild.

The Huffington Post carried the headline, “Organics on Mars: Curiosity Rover Finds Evidence of Organic Compounds on Red Planet.” Fox came out with, “Too soon to declare ‘life’ on Mars, NASA says,” as if the Rover's latest discovery suggests it's only a matter of time. However, the hubbub is mostly just that.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been touring Mars since August blasting rocks with lasers, taking photos, and sending back data. The latest soil sample it took, the results of which were announced on Monday, points to the presence of organic compounds on Mars.

The Rover found “water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances” in the soil, according to NASA. This includes “one-carbon organics that were detected by the instrument.” Carbon is one of those building blocks of life that is ubiquitous on Earth. However, lots of questions remain. Most notably, is the Rover itself responsible for the discovery?

“We have to be very careful that both the carbon and the chlorine are coming from Mars,” Pat Mahaffy, principal investigator for Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument said. It’s possible the molecules were actually stowaways on the Rover itself and made the trip from Earth and aren’t native to Mars at all.

NASA is urging caution.

“We’re doing science at the pace of science,” said NASA project scientist John Grotzinger. “We’re just going to have to be patient.”

The announcement was made at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. There were so many rumors about a blockbuster announcement that NASA actually issued a press release days before the meeting urging people to chill out.

I want to believe, as no doubt many of us do, that there’s something undiscovered out there in space. It’s the explorer in all of us.

But for now, we’ll have to be content with another small step that brings us closer to understanding a neighboring planet. And I guess that's pretty cool too, having a robot up there that you can follow on Twitter.