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The Mission




Mission: Mars Science Lab
Rocket: Atlas 5 (AV-028)
Launch: Nov. 26, 2011 @ 10:02am EST (1502 GMT)
Landing: Aug. 6, 2012 @ 1:32am EDT (0532 GMT)
Site: Base of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater

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Mars rover soil test results not definitive on organics yet
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: December 3, 2012


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Despite widespread speculation about a potentially significant discovery on Mars, the Curiosity rover's first detailed look at a martian soil sample with an instrument capable of detecting organic compounds has not found any "definitive" signs of materials that play key roles in biological processes on Earth, scientists said Monday.


This is a view of the third (left) and fourth (right) trenches made by the 1.6-inch-wide (4-centimeter-wide) scoop on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
 
While the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, instrument detected signs of an oxygen-chlorine compound -- perchlorate -- and trace amounts of chlorinated methane compounds, which contain carbon, researchers say more tests are needed to make sure the carbon originated with the sample and was not brought to Mars aboard Curiosity.

"Even though (SAM) detected organic compounds, first of all we have to demonstrate that they're indigenous to Mars," said Project Scientist John Grotzinger. "Then after that we can engage in the question about whether they represent the background fall of cosmic materials that are organic in composition that fall on the surface of every terrestrial planet."

Only then, he said, can scientists "begin to get into the more complex questions of whether or not this might be some type of a biological material. But that's well down the road for us."

Grotzinger made the comments during a news briefing at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco.

Widespread speculation that Curiosity had made a major discovery began in the wake of SAM's first soil sample analysis and a National Public Radio interview with Grotzinger, who was reluctant to discuss the rover's findings before the AGU presentation.

Asked about lessons learned from the apparent conflict between public expectation and scientific reality, Grotzinger said "I think certainly what I've learned from this is that you have to be careful about what you say and even more careful about how you say it. We're doing science at the speed of science. We live in a world that's sort of at the pace of Instagrams.

"The enthusiasm that we had, that I had, that our whole team has about what's going on here, I think was just misunderstood. There's not much more to say than that."

Curiosity was lowered to the surface of Gale Crater by a rocket-powered backpack on Aug. 6, kicking off a planned two-year mission to look for organic compounds and to find out whether the red planet has, or ever had, a habitable environment.

The first four months of the mission have been devoted to activating, testing and calibrating its scientific instruments before the rover begins making its way to its ultimate target, the base of a central 3.5-mile-high mound of layered terrain in the center of Gale Crater that is known as Mount Sharp.

Most recently, Curiosity's robot arm has been put through its paces scooping up sandy soil samples from a low dune and depositing them into a pair of on-board mini laboratories, SAM and another known as CheMin, for Chemistry and Mineralogy.

Scientists deliberately picked an average looking dune made up of presumably commonplace, fine-grained soil. Several scoops were processed through the sample acquisition system and then discarded in an attempt to scrub away any traces of Earth's environment. Portions of a third and fourth samples were processed by the CheMin instrument and the fifth by SAM.

"The instrument, SAM, is working perfectly well," Grotzinger said. "It has made this detection of simple organic compounds. We just simply don't know if they're indigenous to Mars or not. It's going to take us some time to work through that. I know there's a lot of interest in that. But the point is, Curiosity's middle name is 'patience' and we all have to have a healthy dose of that."


NASA's Curiosity Mars rover documented itself in the context of its work site, an area called "Rocknest Wind Drift." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP
 
Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for SAM at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, agreed, saying "we have to be very careful to make sure both the carbon and the chlorine are coming from Mars. ... There's more work to do."

And even then, he cautioned, the tentative results must be taken in context.

"If we take microbes that are living in some extreme environments on Earth that aren't very abundant and we do this same type of experiment, we see a whole suite of organic structures produced," he said.

"What we're seeing here (on Mars) are some very simple compounds and it's entirely possible they're coming from the very reactive chlorine that's released and picking up carbon from somewhere. We have to try to understand where that carbon is coming from. But the informative thing in really understanding a source of carbon, what we would have to have is a whole variety of compounds."

After completing its initial sample anlysis runs at a sand drift in an area known as Rocknest, Curiosity moved to a new area, known as Point Lake, while the team looks for suitable rocks to serve as test subjects for a powerful drill mounted on Curiosity's robot arm. The drill, intended to provide pristine samples from the interior of targeted rocks, is the final major component of the science package to be tested.

The nuclear-powered rover was not designed to look for signs of past or present life. Rather, its instruments were built to look for the chemical traces of past or present habitability.

"At this point, basically, our car is ready to go," Grotzinger said. "This is a car that comes with a 10,000-page user manual that we also have to write as we read it. That's where the patience comes in."

Engineers hope to complete the drill tests before the Christmas holidays. After that, Curiosity will head for Mount Sharp.

"So we're going to load up the car with the science team," Grotzinger said. "We've gassed it up, checked the oil, we're going to kick the tires around a little bit but then we're ready for our trip and that's when our science mission of exploration really gets into full gear."

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VIDEO: THE MARS SCIENCE LAB FULL LAUNCH EXPERIENCE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ATLAS 5 ROCKET LAUNCHES MARS SCIENCE LAB PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD CAMERA VIEW OF NOSE CONE JETTISON PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD CAMERA VIEW OF THE STAGING EVENT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD VIEW OF ROCKET RELEASING MSL PLAY
VIDEO: LAUNCH DECLARED A SUCCESS PLAY

VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: OUR VIEW OF LIFTOFF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: VAB ROOF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: PATRICK AFB PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SOUTH OF THE PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: THE BEACH TRACKER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SHUTTLE PAD CAMERA PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SHUTTLE WATER TOWER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: TRACKER WEST OF THE PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: CLOSE-UP ON UMBILICALS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: COMPLEX 41 VIF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: THE PRESS SITE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: PRE-LAUNCH INTERVIEW WITH PROJECT MANAGER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: NARRATED PREVIEW OF ATLAS 5 ASCENT PROFILE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROCKET'S LAUNCH CAMPAIGN HIGHLIGHTS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MSL'S LAUNCH CAMPAIGN HIGHLIGHTS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPACECRAFT CLEANROOM TOUR PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: ATLAS ROCKET ROLLS OUT TO LAUNCH PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: TIME-LAPSE VIEWS OF ROCKET ROLLOUT PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: THE PRE-LAUNCH NEWS CONFERENCE PLAY
VIDEO: CURIOSITY ROVER SCIENCE BRIEFING PLAY
VIDEO: LOOKING FOR LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE PLAY
VIDEO: WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE RED PLANET PLAY
VIDEO: ROBOTICS AND HUMANS TO MARS TOGETHER PLAY

VIDEO: PREVIEW OF ENTRY, DESCENT AND LANDING PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: PREVIEW OF CURIOSITY ROVER EXPLORING MARS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: A FLYOVER OF THE GALE CRATER LANDING SITE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: NUCLEAR GENERATOR HOISTED TO ROVER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MARS SCIENCE LAB MOUNTED ATOP ATLAS 5 PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MOVING MSL TO ATLAS ROCKET HANGAR PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPACECRAFT PLACED ABOARD TRANSPORTER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: APPLYING MISSION LOGOS ON THE FAIRING PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MSL ENCAPSULATED IN ROCKET'S NOSE CONE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FINAL LOOK AT SPACECRAFT BEFORE SHROUDING PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: HEAT SHIELD INSTALLED ONTO SPACECRAFT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: BEAUTY SHOTS OF SPACECRAFT PACKED UP PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ATTACHING THE RING-LIKE CRUISE STAGE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: PARACHUTE-EQUIPPED BACKSHELL INSTALLED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SKYCRANE AND CURIOSITY MATED TOGETHER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: TWO-HALVES OF ROCKET NOSE CONE ARRIVES PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: CENTAUR UPPER STAGE HOISTED ATOP ATLAS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FINAL SOLID ROCKET BOOSTER ATTACHED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FIRST OF FOUR SOLID BOOSTERS MOUNTED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FIRST STAGE ERECTED ON MOBILE LAUNCHER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: STAGES DRIVEN FROM HARBOR TO THE ASOC PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROCKET ARRIVES ABOARD SEA-GOING VESSEL PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: STOWING ROVER'S INSTRUMENTED ROBOT ARM PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: DEPLOYING CURIOSITY'S SIX WHEELS ON EARTH PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MMRTG PUT BACK INTO STORAGE AT SPACEPORT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: NUCLEAR GENERATOR FIT-CHECK ON THE ROVER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROVER'S NUCLEAR POWER SOURCE ARRIVES PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPIN-TESTING THE RING-LIKE CRUISE STAGE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: UNCOVERING CURIOSITY ROVER IN CLEANROOM PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: UNVEILING THE ROCKET-POWERED SKYCRANE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: UNBOXING THE ROVER FROM SHIPPING CRATE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROVER HAULED FROM RUNWAY TO PHSF FACILITY PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MARS ROVER ARRIVES AT KENNEDY SPACE CENTER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: DESCENT WEIGHTS INSTALLED ON BACKSHELL PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SOLAR ARRAY PANELS ATTACHED TO CRUISE RING PLAY | HI-DEF
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