This is a view of the third (left) and fourth (right) trenches made by the 1.6-inch-wide (4-centimeter-wide) scoop on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in October 2012. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The first Martian soil tests conducted using the advanced laboratory aboard rover Curiosity revealed a "complex chemistry," but no major surprises, scientists said Monday.
The rover is nearly four months into its two-year mission to explore the surface of Mars. The results discussed at Monday's American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco came from soil scooped by the rover's robotic arm and analyzed for the first time by its full arsenal of on-board laboratory instruments.
An analysis detected water, sulfur, chlorine substances and other chemicals, but no definitive signs of 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 Paul Mahaffy, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
What was found -- or not found -- in the soil wasn't the only takeaway from the test. The process also provided mission engineers with an idea of what can be expected from the rover's instruments as it sets off over the next two years toward part of Mount Sharp. The rover will scoop and analyze more soil samples along the way in Gale Crater, where the rover -- lowered from its spacecraft by a rocket-guided skycrane -- landed in August.
The samples discussed Monday were from a drift of dust and sand called "Rocknest" in a flat part of the crater. They were similar in composition and texture to samples at sites visited by rovers Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity.
"We used almost every part of our science payload examining this drift," said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "The synergies of the instruments and richness of the data sets give us great promise for using them at the mission's main science destination on Mount Sharp."
The first few months have primarily been used to test the rover's complex equipment. The rover has sent back stunning images of the Martian surface, checked in on Foursquare and left wheel tracks on Mars during its test drive.