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Mars Curiosity Rover continues hunt for life -

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ELEANOR HALL: Well it may not be first contact with an alien species, but the Mars Curiosity Rover has discovered something in the Martian soil.

Curiosity found traces of simple carbon compounds, which are the building blocks of life, along with water and a mix of other chemicals, as Will Ockenden reports.

WILL OCKENDEN: Since the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in early August, it's driven about 500 metres around Mars' Gale crater, scooping up dirt for analysis, and like a drunken teenager with a camera, Curiosity has also been taking photos of itself and posting them all on the internet.

DAWN SUMNER: Curiosity doesn't have a mirror so for us to see her, or for her to see herself, she has to take pictures.

WILL OCKENDEN: Dr Dawn Sumner is a member of the Curiosity science team. She is from the University of California Davis, and is a long term planner for the mission and says Curiosity has been filtering and testing sand.

DAWN SUMNER: We discovered that there's actually quite a bit of water that's sort of absorbed or attached to the surface of these minerals and that water tells us about the water cycle on Mars. The surface is really dry right now, but there is some exchange between the atmosphere and the rocks and when we learn more about this data we'll be able to tell how that water in the atmosphere varies and where it came from.

WILL OCKENDEN: Because there was also speculation that Gale crater, where Curiosity landed, used to be a lake on Mars. Is that also indicating that that is correct?

DAWN SUMNER: Well the samples we've analysed now are young and so if there was a lake at Gale Crater, it was probably billions of years ago, and what we're looking at now is sort of those modern processes.

And we chose this sample because it's easy, it's certainly easy to scoop the sample, that's what we did first and that's what we ingested first and we are working towards drilling into a rock and collecting powder from that drill and will analyse it in a similar way.

And that will tell us more about the ancient history of Mars.

WILL OCKENDEN: Over the past few weeks, the science world has been buzzing with speculation that Curiosity has discovered something huge.

Before today's announcement, NASA hosed down expectations, but it did announce the discovery of simple carbon compounds, which are vital for life as we know it to exist.

DAWN SUMNER: However, the science team still needs to do a lot more tests to understand whether or not carbon compounds came with us from earth in the instrument or whether they're from Mars.

WILL OCKENDEN: In other words, what Curiosity found on Mars may have hitchhiked there from Earth.

The search for signs of life will continue, after all Curiosity is only a few months in toits two year mission, and the Gale crater is about 150 kilometres in diameter.

But with every Mars discovery, the announcement quickly falls into one of two categories: life found, or life not found.

Have you found life on Mars yet?

DAWN SUMNER: No (laughs) and one of the interesting things is we haven't found life on Mars and we don't know whether or not there's life on Mars.

WILL OCKENDEN: Curiosity has about half a kilometre on its odometer, but will next year start an 8 kilometre journey to Mount Sharp, a 5.5 kilometre high mountain in the centre of the crater.

The geologists are particularly excited about layers of rocks at its base, and say it could reveal secrets to the origin of life.

DAWN SUMNER: To get life to originate or start, for example life on Earth, it has to start with some organic compounds and those sort of start reacting and life boot straps itself together, it sort of makes these cycles that get more and more complicated.

Even if there was never life on Mars, looking for organic compounds and understanding the history of the planet can help us understand our origins, how life got on Earth and how Earth behaved really early in its history, maybe before it had life.

ELEANOR HALL: So keep it up Curiosity. That's Dr Dawn Sumner from the University of California Davis, ending Will Ockenden's report.