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Mars rover finds clues of life's building blocks

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has found complex chemicals in the dusty soil of the Red Planet, including some evidence of organic compounds, one of the basic building blocks of life — but nothing that definitively shows there is or ever was life on the Mars, scientists said Monday.

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The rover, which landed on Mars on Aug. 6, has detected water molecules, sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, NASA team members announced at a highly anticipated news conference at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

But the organic compounds may not have originated on Mars and may instead come from contamination from NASA's instruments. The chemicals were detected using the rover's robotic arm, which scooped soils in the Gale Crater area, and several high-tech devices, including the SAM — or Sample Analysis of Mars — instrument, which analyzes gases that come from dirt and rocks when they are heated in an oven aboard the six-wheeled rover.

"The instrument SAM is working perfectly well and has made this detection of organic compounds, simple organic compounds" said Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "We don't know if they are indigenous to Mars yet. It's going to take us some time to work through that. I know there's a lot of interest in that, but Curiosity's middle name is patience, and we all have to have a healthy dose of that."

The two-year, $2.5 billion mission — successfully sending the largest craft ever from earth to land on another planet — has renewed public interest in Mars.

Meanwhile, NASA's long-running Voyager 1 spacecraft has entered a new region at the edge of the solar system and is close to exiting it forever.

Scientists have dubbed this region the "magnetic highway," and it's the last stop before interstellar space, or the space between stars.

The findings were presented Monday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 launched 35 years ago on a tour of the outer planets. Afterward, both spacecraft continued to hurtle toward the fringes of the solar system.

Mars rover finds clues of life's building blocks 12/03/12 [Last modified: Monday, December 3, 2012 8:52pm]

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