NASA just made that Mars announcement. So is it history-making?

Contributed by
Jan 14, 2013, 2:52 PM EST

Almost two weeks ago, we heard NASA was cooking up an announcement stemming from its Mars Curiosity Rover that would be "one for the history books." Now the announcement is here. Is it as big as we hoped?

Well, we didn't make first contact, but Curiosity's scientific instruments have come up with some potentially huge data from Martian solo analysis. If the data is correct, the rover has uncovered "water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients" in Martian soil.

Curiosity, which is the first of NASA's rovers to be able to actually scoop up and analyze soil inside its body, made the discovery while analyzing soil from a sand drift known as "Rocknest" in Mars' Gale Crater. The analysis marked the first time Curiosity has used its full array of scientific instruments, including the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, to dig into Martian soil. These early analyses are a kind of test run for Curiosity's main target, the Martian mountain Mount Sharp.

So does this data mark the discovery of organic compounds on Mars? Not exactly. According to NASA, the data has not yet been confirmed, and it's even possible that the samples were somehow contaminated either by material stuck on the rover that originally came from Earth or by material that fell from space and isn't native to Mars.

"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, Maryland.

But though we aren't yet certain if these results are the real deal, Curiosity's team sees this test as a very promising first step to what the rover might uncover later in its mission.

"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."

So, we got almost-but-not-quite earth-shattering news from NASA that, while it isn't confirmation of extraterrestrial life, is certainly pretty cool. What do you think? Will NASA find something even better later in Curiosity's mission?

(Via NASA)