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Curiosity soil samples show a vast chemical diversity, but no signs of life

The results from Curiosity’s soil scoops are in, and while it looks like that the red Martian soil is much more chemically diverse than previously thought, there isn’t yet any signs of organic chemistry that could lead to life, though NASA is still hoping.

Curiosity is the first Mars rover able to scoop soil into analytical instruments. The specific soil sample came from a drift of windblown dust and sand called “Rocknest.” The site lies in a relatively flat part of Gale Crater still miles away from the rover’s main destination on the slope of a mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover’s laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM used three methods to analyze gases given off from the dusty sand when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds — carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life.

“We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Curiosity’s APXS instrument and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover’s arm confirmed Rocknest has chemical-element composition and textural appearance similar to sites visited by earlier NASA Mars rovers Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity.

Curiosity’s team selected Rocknest as the first scooping site because it has fine sand particles suited for scrubbing interior surfaces of the arm’s sample-handling chambers. Sand was vibrated inside the chambers to remove residue from Earth. MAHLI close-up images of Rocknest show a dust-coated crust one or two sand grains thick, covering dark, finer sand.

“Active drifts on Mars look darker on the surface,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. “This is an older drift that has had time to be inactive, letting the crust form and dust accumulate on it.”

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