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Mars Rover Finds Complex Chemicals But No Organic Compounds 137

techtech writes in with the results from the first soil samples tested by the Curiosity rover. "Although NASA's Curiosity rover hasn't yet confirmed the detection of organic compounds on Mars, it's already seeing that the Red Planet's soil contains complex chemicals — including signs of an intriguing compound called perchlorate. The first soil sample analysis from Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars lab, or SAM, was the leadoff topic today at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco. The findings were eagerly awaited because of rumors that the Curiosity team was on the verge of announcing major findings — and although NASA tamped down expectations, the scientists said they were overjoyed with the first round of analysis."
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Mars Rover Finds Complex Chemicals But No Organic Compounds

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  • by Max_W ( 812974 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @02:51PM (#42171587)
    on Curiosity and are just about ready to go... []

    • by jamstar7 ( 694492 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:13PM (#42171913)

      on Curiosity and are just about ready to go... [] :o)

      That doesn't look like Jimmy Hoffa to me...

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I only got a 3 on the AP Chemistry test many years ago, but even I know that perchlorate [] is not "an intriguing compound", but an ion that forms a variety of salts.

      • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:37PM (#42172141)

        Perchlorate is intriguing for a number of reasons that are tangental to the compound's intrinsic character.

        First, it is a potentially biologically useful compound as an oxygen source for single cellular respiration in autochemotrophs.

        Second, if concentrations are high enough, the salt lowers the melting point of water sufficiently that martian soil could be "moist" at sufficient depths.

        Also, the compound usually only forms in nature from UV irridation of aqueous saline solutions. A high abundance of the mineral is very suggestive of a very different mars from what we see now.

        Previous rovers have detected gypsum, and perchlorates at other locations. Additional samplings of perchlorates increases the probability that the mineral is very prevelent in the crust, which greatly increases the chances of finding microbiotic life.

        The fact that perchlorate salts are about as "interesting" as O2, salt, silicon dioxide, and other inorganic substances here on earth does not mean that they are uninteresting in an environment that is radically different from our own.

        • I thought the discovery of perchlorates dashed their hopes of finding microbial life - something about it being a wicked oxidizer?

          • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @04:27PM (#42172589)

            It is a wicked oxydizer, and it does kill most terrestrial microbes almost instantly. (Its basically bleach.)

            However, the degree of lethality is deprendent on concentration of the perchlorate salt (my understanding was that it was under 1% of the sample, suggesting it was a low yeild, but omnipresent mineral), as a small qualtity would be tolerable to extremophiles, which is what you would expect in the extreme conditions on mars.

            Life on mars appears more and more to fall into a very narrow band of habitablility, like the photosynthetic soil microbes of antarctica, assuming it exists at all.

            Missions like this one give us a better understanding of martian environmental conditions, and allow us to make better guesses about what areas of mars might potentially harbor life.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by ColdWetDog ( 752185 )

              Oxygen is, wait for it, a wicked oxidizer. Current life forms have evolved multiple processes to mitigate damage caused by having such a reactive chemical in the atmosphere.

              But it's an energy source. Gotta have those electrons.

              • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

                Yup, but perchlorate makes oxygen seem tame by comparison.

                I'd think that dealing with it in any kind of high concentration would be difficult, which kind of rules out the whole "well, maybe there is an ocean of salt water stabilized by perchlorates under the surface" bit.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            Well it sure prevents entire classes of organisms to develop there, but life might be based on different reactions and elements. As long as it grows, multiplies, and adapts itself to a changing environment it can be classified as life (according to genesis chapter 9, I mean :D)

  • Can't keep this up (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mws1066 ( 1057218 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @02:51PM (#42171597)
    NASA can't keep up being the "boy who cried wolf." People will just stop listening if every little thing is "breakthrough" and something "earth-shattering!" My goodness.
    • by GodInHell ( 258915 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @02:56PM (#42171661) Homepage
      My assumption: It's one of those "if you know what you're talking about this is BIG new" stories I think. Means a lot to people who are deeply invested in the material, everyone else just stands around and says "so what does that mean?" Of course, a presentation aimed at an audience that is supposed to /know/ what they're talking about already assumes you know what it means.
    • by Jeremi ( 14640 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @02:58PM (#42171695) Homepage

      Did NASA refer to this as "earth-shattering" or a "breakthrough"? Since you use quote marks, I assume you can point to the quote where they said that, and aren't just using exaggerated paraphrasing so you can then criticize your straw man.

        • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:05PM (#42171821) Homepage Journal

          Please point out in that story where anyone who actually works for NASA used the phrases "earth-shattering," "earth-shaking," or even "breakthrough."

          • by mws1066 ( 1057218 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:13PM (#42171911)
            "Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something Earth-shaking. 'This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good,' he says.""
            • The only place where that line about "Earth-shaking" appears, AFAICT, is in the Slashdot summary. It's not even in reporter's words in the linked story, much less in any direct quote from Grotzinger. And contrary to your previous post, the difference between "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good" and "the analysis shows something Earth-shaking" is far more than one of semantics. It's about as serious as the difference between "mws1066 got arrested" and "mws1066 is a s

              • Is there really a significant difference if NASA blew this out of proportion or if the media did? The end result is the same. They look bad when they have to backpedal and release underwhelming findings.
                • by Squidlips ( 1206004 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:36PM (#42172131)
                  No, the press looks bad, not NASA. When Grotz said it was gonna be one for the history books, he meant the mission as a whole not the latest SAM findings. Unfortunately, this means that Grotz or any other MSL project scientists will be very very disinclined to talk to the press, alas.
                • the only thing they could have done better is control their staff. i'm sure there's group emails going round there to that effect now.

                  the problem is, when they have a big robot looking for life on Mars, everyone's going to assume that when they call a press conference, they'll announce that they've found life on Mars.

                  • by drerwk ( 695572 )

                    the only thing they could have done better is control their staff. i'm sure there's group emails going round there to that effect now.

                    the problem is, when they have a big robot looking for life on Mars, everyone's going to assume that when they call a press conference, they'll announce that they've found life on Mars.

                    Grotzinger is not NASA staff - he is a Caltech professor. And Curiosity is equipped to look for organic chemistry, not current life.

                • by meglon ( 1001833 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @04:19PM (#42172519)
                  Yes, there is.

                  This is a historic finding, which could very well repaint the landscape of Mars as we know it. That is a big deal. The problem is, we have a bunch of barely educated morons in this country who jump to the conclusion of little green men in flying saucers whenever someone looks up and sees a bird fly overhead, or who think there's ghosts everywhere because some dipshit on Ghost Hunters says "what was that!!?" every fucking episode.

                  Real science suffers in the US because our citizens are being bred to be stupider than shit. NASA hasn't one anything wrong, it's just there's too few people with actually brains in this country to understand basic language, much less basic science.
                • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

                  Yes. If NASA, a trusted scientific source, blew it out of proportion, shame on NASA. If the media (which includes Slashdot), a known non-scientific hype factory, blew something out of proportion and you believed it, shame on you.

            • I can't believe Grotzinger would be so sloppy with his terminology when discussing sifting Martian soil samples into the SAM.
            • That quote was in the context of the entire mission, not this particular data point []. He was saying that the Curiosity mission data, overall, is groundbreaking.

              Naturally, NPR quoted him out of context, and then everyone else ran with it.

          • Please point out in that story

            The news media put those words into NASA's mouth, but Grotzinger* made it sound like a bigger deal. He should have been a little more reserved but it's understandable, from a geek perspective, that he was excited over something geeky. Which most people will not understand.

            Footnote: Interesting.. NPR has apparently since edited the original version of their story and changed "earthshaking" to "remarkable".

            "Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the
            analysis shows something earthshaking.

          • the term used by one of the JPL guys was "one for the history books"

          • by skelly33 ( 891182 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:52PM (#42172293)
            It's all over the fricken Internet. It was in the NPR report and it looks like the report has since been edited to remove the comment, perhaps out of embarrassment. The transcript from the same report however still includes the quote...

            "PALCA: Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM and it will tell you what the sample's made of. Right now, SAM is working on a Mars soil sample, and [John] Grotzinger says the results are earth-shaking."

            From NPR Transcript []

            Grotzinger is the "principal investigator for the rover mission".
          • by ChronoFish ( 948067 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @04:36PM (#42172671) Journal
            From the MarsCuriosity Twitter account - which I assume to be targeting a more "social" audience to include scientist, space-fans, back-yard astronomers, and people who may or may not know or get "soil science".

            Oct. 9: Shiny Object Update: My team continues to assess a small object on ground, likely a shred of benign plastic
            Oct 12: All Shook Up: Dusted off my sampling system this week & investigated a mysterious "FOD"
            Oct 15: Time for a third scoop... and a second look. Investigating newfound bright material on Mars
            Oct 18: Distinctly Martian: Just had my 1st taste of Red Planet regolith. Mineral analysis underway
            Nov 2: I found clues to changes in Mars' atmosphere, but no methane... yet. More observations planned
            Nov 21: What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission "one for the history books" .
            Nov 29: Everybody, chill. After careful analysis, there are no Martian organics in recent samples. Update Dec 3

            The whole twitter account is there to make mundane rock observation sound interesting to someone (anyone) who is not a (astro-) geologist. If "Curiosity" is excited, so should be everyone who follows. 128 characters is barely enough to convey a message, much less "tone" - but readers will inject their own tone - which is dangerous for an agency that wishes not to release any data with less than 5 9s of precession.

          • by mikael ( 484 )

            To me, something "earth-shaking" would be to prove that the Mars sized planet that collided with an early Earth to form the Moon, was in fact Mars.

        • by miltonw ( 892065 )
          Nope. No "earth-shaking" there. Yes, the Slashdot headline written by I-don't-know-who has that phrase, but I don't see NASA saying it. If you are going to make a big point of criticizing NASA for saying "earth-shaking" and "breakthrough" you just might want to find out if they actually said it. Just an idea.
        • by hakey ( 1227664 )
          Go to the linked article, it uses "something remarkable" where Slashdot used "Earth-shaking" in the summary. Not sure if Slashdot changed the word, or if NPR revised the article. Either way, the over-hype is as much the fault of the media as it is NASA.
        • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

          I see the problem. You're confusing Slashdot with NASA. While there are some rocket scientists who contribute to Slashdot, the vast majority... ain't.

      • by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:10PM (#42171885)

        The quote comes from rover lead John Grotzinger, in a recent NPR interview []:

        Here are the relevant quotes from the interview:

        "We're getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting,"

        "The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down."

        "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

          So, no... NASA didn't refer to this as "earth-shattering" or "a breakthrough", and the original poster is talking out of his ass.

          • When speaking to the general audience of NPR and other media sources, making a statement that findings are, "One for the history books" is irresponsible if it is *not* something that most of the populace would find earth-shaking. I think even most of us thought this was an exceptionally-important finding, such as the presence of organic compounds.

            The levels of science classification by the general public are as follows:
            1) blah blah blah blah
            2) wtf, science is weird. what's on TV?
            3) when will that be on my i

      • didn't you hear, they discovered mardi-gras beads on mars.

    • by codewarren ( 927270 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @02:58PM (#42171701)

      Is it NASA that is crying wolf? TFS suggests only "rumors" of "major findings" and that NASA was downplaying those expectations.

    • I suspect it's a case of NASA *THINKING* they *MAY* have found something like organic compounds, and one of their loud-mouths shooting off to the press about it. When follow-up tests confirmed that it wasn't organic compounds, they saved face by pulling this "Oh, the press just misinterpreted what he was saying" stuff.

      • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:11PM (#42171889) Homepage Journal

        When follow-up tests confirmed that it wasn't organic compounds, they saved face by pulling this "Oh, the press just misinterpreted what he was saying" stuff.

        Or maybe ... the press just misinterpreted what he was saying. Because that's usually the way to bet when it comes to sensationalist science reporting. But you know, if you'd rather believe the worst about NASA scientists, go ahead. They'll keep doing good, professional work regardless of what you think.

    • by Squidlips ( 1206004 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:03PM (#42171783)
      Get your facts straight before you fly off the handle. Neither NASA or JPL said anything about earth-shattering or breakthrough. Nothing. There was no official announcement of the kind. There were just a few off-the-cuff remarks by the chief scientist (Grotzinger) made to Joe Palca of NPR about MSL being a landmark missions and how the mission would re-write the history books. But then it was the press and bloggers who blew this way out of proportion.
      • My facts were mostly straight. Yes, it wasn't an official statement, but the chief scientist dude had to have known how his comments would have whipped people into a frenzy. I mean, c'mon.
        • by drerwk ( 695572 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:31PM (#42172103) Homepage
          Facts mostly straight:

          NASA can't keep up being the "boy who cried wolf." People will just stop listening if every little thing is "breakthrough" and something "earth-shattering!" My goodness.

          You know that Grotzinger probably does not even work for NASA right? He is a Caltech professor, likely that Caltech pays his salary. He is not a NASA employee or spokesman.
          You really have not gotten your facts straight, but do not fret you might have an excellent career as a science reporter :-).

    • There they will find the Rocknest Monster and the end of the rover. (Warning: not funny unless you actually read TFA.)

    • I knew it would just be dirt. On, sorry, *complex* dirt. And this is from a big space fan.

    • There are large gaps between what different groups find to be a big deal. For some it's complex chemicals. For some it's proof of Bejebus. For others, it's 3 boob martian pr0n.

    • Not only that, but this 'big finding' directly contradicts last week's 'big finding'...

      Last week: ."we found plastic".... plastic is based on Carbon --- Plastic is an Organic compound. If you're not a chemist and don't know what scientists call Organic, please don't vote me down or bother criticizing this point. Organic in science means carbon-based; organic in common dialogue means 'natural'.

      This week: "we found complex chems, but no organic compounds"....



        What happened is that you got trolled. Go look at the link in the original story - a photo of Mardi Gras beads badly photoshopped onto the martian surface, and an accompanying story written at about a 10th grade level.

        • Funny, your post works better if you read in your sig at the end. Makes sense that way.

        • by mark-t ( 151149 )
          Uhmmm... to be fair, *MOST* science press releases that are aimed at being seen by the public, and not specifically only for peers with a particular level or type of education, are actually written at about 7th or 8thj grade level.
    • Your statement is so consistent with how people view scientific progress in general - by dreaming up some arbitrary vision of how the future will be, then feeling cheated when the universe doesn't turn out to be what they vaguely imagined.

      As far as I am concerned the Curiosity mission is accountable for this: to gather the data they got funded to gather. This includes developing the sensors, getting them to the right spot on Mars, collecting the data, and transmitting it home. Whether that data confirms

    • Don't worry, the guy that let the "earth shattering" leak get out had been dealt with. Which in government speak means that he was promoted, given a big fat raise, and now sits alone in an office all day and fears losing his income if he ever tells the truth about this. The perchlorate story is the story that people can handle, just as Roswell's weather balloons were last century. Nothing to see here, move on.
    • by ThorGod ( 456163 )

      You can't totally blame NASA for crying wolf. Last week some yahoo pulled a prank on everyone, and that yahoo had nothing to do with NASA. That got everyone's hopes up and had, again, nothing to do with NASA.

    • I don't think this is NASA's fault. Not entirely, anyway.

      NASA has never announced, "OMG, you guys! Life on Mars!!! We think we found it!" What they've done is release significantly lower-key findings that got themexcited (much like GodInHell says).

      It looks like people want the one, big, "Holy crap! Little green men!" announcement. That's not going to happen. What'll happen (if it turns out that there's microbial life on Mars, or even was microbial life on Mars) is that the evidence will amass slowly.

  • by hawks5999 ( 588198 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @02:57PM (#42171683)
    What a let down.
  • Seems like they wanted to try to build some excitement when there was nothing to be excited about.
    • It just sounded better than "We spent XXX Billions of dollars to send the rover to mars and discover that there is dirt there."

  • by stepdown ( 1352479 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @02:59PM (#42171715) Journal
    Reminds me of this recent SMBC comic [].
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Perfect. Not just for the "aliens or GTFO" sentiment, but also for the "All we have is a shapeless mass of raw data, and we're not even positive the instruments were calibrated, but we assure you: It's very important."
  • by Squidlips ( 1206004 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:06PM (#42171833)
    There is some good science being done and the Good Stuff will be when Curiosity reaches the clay layers at the base of Mt Sharp, so be patient. There is also the minor mystery of the chlorinated methane products...
  • Or aliens?
  • Rocket fuel (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gr8_phk ( 621180 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @03:14PM (#42171919)
    They mention that the Calcium Perchlorate may be an energy source. How about using it to manufacture rocket fuel on mars? It's similar to other oxidizers used in solid fuel rockets. Wouldn't it be strange if the fuel for a return-to-earth trip could be manufactured right there from materials lying right there on the planet surface? Or am I totally smoking something?
  • Probably had some flunkies hide all the plastics and mess up some sand. I'm also willing to bet that those brave volunteers willingly had their gelsacs pierced to preserve the secret.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I am only an expert on this because it contaminated all our drinking water around Las Vegas valley. It is a very important component in rocket fuel as I recall (like makes it go bang).

    So, yea, I can see that being kind of important if you ever want to go home from mars.

  • []

    The taxpayer deserves more for their 3 billion.
  • Isn't perchlorate a component of some fuels? Perhaps it comes from the hover stage during the lowering phase....
    • Perchlorate is a powerful oxydizer, yes. It has 4 bound oxygen atoms per molar quantity. That's a lot of oxygen. Further, it sheds the oxygen when heated, making it useful for a wide assortment of purposes, not just limited to propellants.

      For instance, heating it in an oven will release breathable oxygen. If we ever establish martian habitats, perchlorate salts in the crust would be invaluable to maintaning a breathable atmosphere inside the enclosure.

      • Now we know what Arnie set in motion when he slapped his hand down on that plate.

        A giant perchlorate heater.

        Get your ass to Mars, indeed....

    • Some fuels. Not the fuels used in the descent thrusters.

  • I'm surprised nobody else has pointed out yet, the headline for the first-linked article says "Curiosity rover finds organic compounds...", directly refuting the statement in the first sentence of the article: "Curiosity rover hasn't yet confirmed the detection of organic compounds on Mars"... geez, what a flub. Who's editing at
  • ...but isn't perchlorate an ion? The article reads:

    including signs of an intriguing compound called perchlorate

    Did they detect perchlorate ions? Or perchlorate compounds? Or perchlorates perhaps? I'm sorry, but this just struck me as a rather in-your-face mistake if that is indeed how it was reported. Or maybe I'm just being pedantic and should find a better use of my time?

    • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

      The science undoubtedly reported "perchlorates" which the journalist then translated into "an intriguing compound called perchlorate" because he remembered vaguely from high school chemistry that "chemical" is kind of like "compound" and apparently this perchlorate stuff is some kind of chemical.

  • by RealGene ( 1025017 ) on Monday December 03, 2012 @04:55PM (#42172853)
    • by Hartree ( 191324 )

      This pretty much shows that NYC Environmental Protection doesn't know what the hell it's talking about. The solvent used in dry cleaning is perchoroethylene.

      Perchlorate and perchloroethylene are not even remotely the same thing. You'd think they'd be able to notice such a glaring error.

      Then again, maybe that's hoping too much.

  • Is this is the earthshaking news we were promised, or are we still waiting for that? Okey, so the first full soil sample analysis was completed. Did they expect it to fail halfway through or something?
  • OMG RUN, CURIOSITY! IT'S ONE GIANT BOMB!!!!! Seriously, isn't perchlorate a significant component of some high explosives?
  • []

    "During its mission, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life and observed falling snow. The mission's biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for

    • Yup, I also remembered that one. Even worse, the Viking probes likely also found the same schtuff, circa 1975.
    • However, one probe's sampling is insufficient to build a general soil minerology statistic from.

      Imagine, aliens send a probe to a mountain on earth and discover gold nuggets. Would it be sensible for the aliens to conclude that the earth has a high soil concentration of gold? Clearly not.

      Likewise, nasa scientists thought the perchlorate discovery was a very unusual anomaly.

      Discovering yet more perchlorate several hundred kilometers away in a different region makes the case that the perchlorates could be a w

Nondeterminism means never having to say you are wrong.