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Mars rover: No revelations in first soil test

The Mars rover Curiosity has completed its first chemical test of soil from the red planet, and scientists say there are no surprises so far.

The spacecraft is on a mission to look for ingredients in Martian soil and rocks that could support life. But in the first scoop of soil analyzed, there were no definitive signs of the chemical building blocks of life.

Instead, the six-wheel rover detected water and a mix of other chemicals.

The findings were reported Monday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

A comment by mission's chief scientist two weeks ago led to speculation that Curiosity had dug up carbon-based organics, considered an essential ingredient for life.

Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for Curiosity's SAM instrument, described the experiment as the rover's "first gulp of Mars material."

In a true demonstration of scientific rigor, Mahaffy began his speech by saying there was "no definitive detection to support organic compounds" on Mars. He then began to explain how Curiosity's latest experiments show levels of carbon and chlorine in the soil that suggest the presence of "organics" on the Martian surface.

"We have to be very careful that both the carbon and the chlorine are coming from Mars," Mahaffy said. The panel of NASA scientists stressed that there was not enough data to state definitively that the compounds were indigenous to the Red Planet. It is possible that the trace levels of organics are hold-overs from Earth that made the trip to Mars with the rover. Another possibility is that the compounds landed on Mars from unknown sources in space.

"Curiosity's middle name is patience," said project scientist John Grotzinger. "We all have to have a healthy dose of that.

Calling the enthusiasm and speculation over the NASA announcement "misunderstood," Grotzinger told reporters that NASA is not expecting any "hallelujah moments" from Curiosity. 

"We're doing science at the pace of science," Grotzinger said. "We're just going to have to be patient.