NASA's Mars rover finds traces of carbon - one essential for life

SAN FRANCISCO Mon Dec 3, 2012 4:43pm EST

Three bite marks left in the Martian ground by the scoop on the robotic arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity are pictured in this October 15, 2012 NASA handout photo obtained by Reuters October 20, 2012. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout

Three bite marks left in the Martian ground by the scoop on the robotic arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity are pictured in this October 15, 2012 NASA handout photo obtained by Reuters October 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - - NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, dispatched to look for the chemical ingredients and environments for microbial life, has found traces of compounds containing carbon, an essential building block for life, scientists said on Monday.

"Just finding carbon somewhere doesn't mean that it has anything to do with life, or the finding of a habitable environment," lead scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, told reporters at an American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

"If you have organic carbon and you don't have any water, you don't have a habitable environment," he said.

Even with carbon and water, life needs other chemicals, such as sulfur, oxygen, phosphorous and nitrogen, to form and evolve.

"It's not unexpected that this sand pile would not be rich in organics. It's been exposed to the harsh Martian environment," said planetary scientist Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"It's really going to be an exciting hunt over the course of this mission to find early environments that might be protected from this surface Mars environment and see what we can add to the carbon story."

The rover, which touched down in August on the floor of a 93-mile wide impact crater near the Martian equator, has already turned up evidence that its landing site was once covered in water.

Scientists do not know if the carbon compounds in the soil are contamination from Earth - arrived on the surface of Mars via comets or asteroids - or if they are indigenous and came from geologic or biological activities on Mars.

"It tells us that we have a lead into a measurement of one of the important ingredients that adds to a habitable environment," Grotzinger said. "We still have a lot of work to do to qualify and characterize what it is."

The rover is expected to reach a richer slice of Martian history next year when it begins examining layers of sediment in a mountain rising from the floor of the crater.

"We're starting to find the spices that make a stew tasty. There are the basic ingredients that you expect to be there, but it's how you combine them and the minor ingredients that really turn out to be interesting," Grotzinger said.

"What this mission is about is integrated science. There is not going to be one single moment where we all stand up and, on the basis of a single measurement, have a hallelujah moment."

The $2 billion Curiosity mission, which is slated to last two years, is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s Viking probes.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Christopher Wilson)

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Comments (3)
AlkalineState wrote:
“Mars Rover Finds Carbon, Starbucks on Mars”

Dec 03, 2012 4:48pm EST  --  Report as abuse
GeorgeBrown wrote:
I like the idea that this mission is about integrated science: find all the pieces of the puzzle and put them together. Learning about Mars will teach us about our own planet and about planetary evolution in general. I hope Reuters keeps running stories about Curiosity because it’s a fascinating expedition!

Dec 03, 2012 6:17pm EST  --  Report as abuse
mikefromaz wrote:
Why have all Martian lander expeditions found evidence of biological activity, and then NASA back-pedasl when show and tell time happens? Earlier landers showed evidence of oxygen and another showed radio isotopes generated by martian critters eating the radioactive goodies and then breathing them into the martiqan atmosphere.. Like this carbon thing, all good experiments until they actually find wht they were looking for.

Dec 03, 2012 9:17pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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