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NASA announced yesterday that the Curiosity Mars rover has found small amounts of simple organic compounds—the building blocks of life—in three samples of Martian soil, but cautioned it is too soon to say whether the carbon in that material came from the Red Planet or hitchhiked there from Earth. Experiments on both the rover and in labs around the world will attempt to find the answer over the coming weeks.
Organic material is not evidence for life—it is found on comets, for example—but it does make up the building blocks of life, and has never been found on Mars, leading to a frenzy of excitement over its possible discovery by Curiosity.
SAM—or the Sample Analysis at Mars—is the instrument capable of finding organic, or carbon-containing, material in Martian soil or rock samples. Rover scientists discussing SAM’s finds at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco yesterday said they had no definitive evidence for organics on Mars. Simple organic compounds called chloromethanes were produced in small amounts when SAM heated soil taken from a sandy area called “Rocknest.”
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