This image from the right Mast Camera (Mastcam) of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows a scoop full of sand and dust lifted by the rover’s first
This image from the right Mast Camera (Mastcam) of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows a scoop full of sand and dust lifted by the rover's first use of the scoop on its robotic arm. In the foreground, near the bottom of the image, a bright object is visible on the ground. This image was taken during the mission's 61st Martian day, or sol (Oct. 7, 2012), the same sol as the first scooping. After examining Sol 61 imaging, the rover team decided to refrain from using the arm on Sol 62 (Oct. 8). Instead, the rover was instructed to acquire additional imaging of the bright object, on Sol 62, to aid the team in assessing possible impact, if any, to sampling activities. (Correspondent Photo by NASA/JPL)

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE - The Curiosity rover's lead scientist hinted at potentially significant findings from Mars in an NPR report Tuesday, setting off a storm of speculation, but JPL has since tried to temper expectations.

"This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good," Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech said in the report.

Grotzinger was describing initial results from the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars - or SAM - suite of instruments, but offered no other details because scientists had yet to confirm the findings.

Curiosity's holy grail is organic compounds, such as methane gas, which would provide a major clue that life might have once existed on Mars. That's what SAM tests for, fueling speculation about Curiosity's discovery.

Organic compounds contain carbon, the element that's considered the basic building block of life.

However, JPL spokesman pointed out Wednesday that the reported "earthshaking" news wasn't Grotzinger's description.

Curiosity's official Twitter account also struck a less dramatic chord on Wednesday:

"What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission `one for the history books."'

JPL said the findings will be revealed Dec. 3 at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

Curiosity is no stranger to what could be described as big news.


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Since its celebrated landing in Mars' Gale Crater in August for a two-year mission, the rover has already found that an ancient streambed once rushed through the area, and found that properly equipped astronauts could withstand the planet's radiation.

The soil sample it collected for its first SAM test wasn't expected to come up with organic compounds, however.

The sample came from Rocknest, a sandy, windblown spot where previous tests had already shown much of the material had been transported from elsewhere.

"We received good data from this first solid sample," SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy said in a Nov. 13 status report.

The rover's ultimate destination is Mt. Sharp, in the center of the crater, where layered rock provides a good chance to find organics.

SAM has three instruments that test for chemistry relevant to life: a mass spectrometer, a tunable laser spectrometer and a gas chromatograph.

They can identify and measure gases, and provide plenty of ways for scientists to make findings important to the scientific community. The laser spectrometer is capable of measuring isotopes, which could help determine how Mars lost much of its atmosphere, according to the Curiosity press kit.

JPL and Grotzinger's cautiousness has already prevented a mistaken announcement once during the Curiosity mission, when a methane finding wasn't supported by subsequent tests, according to NPR.

james.figueroa@sgvn.com

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