Here's the short version of today's Mars news: Curiosity has, in fact, detected simple organics in Martian soil, but that detection is not definitive evidence of Mars-native organic compounds. Scientists first need to make sure that the compounds detected by the Mars Science Laboratory aren't actually stowaways from Earth.
At the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting, a panel of Curiosity scientists shed some light on all the recent hype about a Big Deal Discovery on Mars. According to Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for the SAM instrument aboard Curiosity, "SAM has no definitive detection to report of organic compounds," which actually isn't unexpected. Part of the reason Curiosity was sampling the soil at Rock Nest, a pit stop on the way to Mount Sharp, is that it was expected to be very ordinary, which is helpful for cleaning out the rover's instruments of Earth contaminants.
This declaration may seem to conflict with a statement made later in the conference, where Mahaffy stated that SAM detected "very simple chlorinated hydrocarbons" - organic compounds. The panelists qualified this statement by saying that they're proceeding methodically and scientifically, to ensure that the hydrocarbons they've found didn't hitch a ride aboard Curiosity from Earth. Even if it turns out that they didn't, there's another step before declaring the organics to be of Martian origin: The science team has ensure that the compounds didn't arrive on Mars from space.
If that sounds like bad news or no news to you, think again. Curiosity's team is very satisfied with the rover, which is four months in to a planned two-year mission. "We landed on an ancient riverbed," said Dr. Michael Meyer, one of the lead scientists for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "I think that's just spectacular."
John Grotzinger, the project scientist for Curiosity, said that the rover's in great shape do to more good science on top of the reams of data it's already collected, noting that all of Curiosity's instruments have checked out healthy. He compared the rover to a car getting ready for a long road trip; the "CSI lab on wheels" will begin its drive to its main target, Mount Sharp, early in 2013.
As to whether Curiosity will find evidence of life on Mars or not, Grotzinger said that such a discovery is at least months away. Right now, the team is excited about rich data that helps form a picture of what the environment on Mars might have been like in the past.
Grotzinger added, "What I've learned from this is you have to be careful about what you say and even more careful about how you say it. We're doing science at the speed of science; we live in a world that's at the pace of Instagrams."
"Curiosity's middle name is Patience, and we all have to have a healthy dose of that."