Mars rover: No surprise in first soil test

LOS ANGELES - NASA's Curiosity rover has indeed found something in the Martian dirt. But so far, there's no definitive sign of the chemical ingredients necessary to support life.

A scoop of sandy soil analyzed by Curiosity's chemistry laboratory contained water and a mix of chemicals, but not complex carbon-based molecules considered essential for life.

That the soil was not more hospitable did not surprise mission scientist Paul Mahaffy, since radiation from space can destroy any carbon evidence.

"It's not unexpected necessarily," said Mahaffy, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, who is in charge of the chemistry experiments. "It's been exposed to the harsh Martian environment." The latest findings were presented yesterday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The mission managed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is trying to determine whether conditions on Mars could have been favorable for microbes when the red planet was warmer and wetter.

Scientists think the best chance of finding complex carbon is at Mount Sharp, which rises three miles from the center of Gale Crater near the Martian equator. Curiosity won't trek there until early next year. Images from space reveal intriguing layers at the base and many think it's the ideal place to search for carbon.

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