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Curiosity discovered WHAT on Mars?

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 4th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Scientists created considerable buzz when it was predicted that something "earth shattering" would be announced at a news conference on Monday held to discuss results from NASA's Martian rover, Curiosity. As reporters crowded into the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, everyone waited to hear the announcement.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (Catholic Online) - The meeting was so packed that reporters were turned away and had to wait to get their reports second-hand. The informed guesses settled on the discovery of organic molecules, the basic precursors for life. Bets were placed and fingers crossed.

The answer however, proved to be much less than earth shattering, despite the hype. Paul Mahaffy, a member of the Mars Science Laboratory's team spoke and said his comments amounted to a big "maybe."

This was a disappointment to many who hoped the announcement would be more exciting than maybe.

What Curiostiy did discover was chlorinated methane and carbon molecules, using an instrument called Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). The elements are associated with the building blocks of life, certainly, however scientists cannot be sure if the traces came from Mars, or from contamination of the rover itself.

"SAM has no definitive detection to report of organic compounds with this first set of experiments," Mahaffy said.

Scientists were set abuzz two weeks ago when an initial test showed the presence of methane in the atmosphere. Methane on Earth is produced by living things, so it was a hint that life could exist, or once existed on Mars. However, a follow-up test revealed no methane at all, leading researchers to believe the initial result was caused by contamination of the rover's equipment.

Scientists do not think they have found evidence of life on Mars, at least not just yet. In fact, the preliminary signs suggest that life has never existed on the planet. But Mars is a big and ancient place. Evidence suggests that the planet was once watery with a thicker and heavier atmosphere. Even Curiosity has picked up evidence of this during its short stint on the Red Planet.

More tests are planned and really, so far, the rover has done very little science related to its primary mission, which is to test for the presence of those molecules and conditions that could create life. The rover was not designed to find living organisms - only molecules that could hint at their existence at some time.

Curiosity is next due to test its rock drill and other equipment before repeating tests that will cook soil samples and look for signs of life, or precursor chemicals, on the planet. 

The good news is that all of Curiosity's equipment appears to be in working order, so that over the next few years, as the team gets down to doing some serious science, the results, whatever they may be, should be worth hearing.

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