A Mars Announcement ‘for the History Books’? Not So Fast

Big news from Mars may turn out to be more modest than it sounds

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University of Arizona / JPL-Caltech / NASA

A detailed telephoto view from Curiosity shows Mount Sharp. The rover was expected to reach the 3.4-mile-high peak in February 2013, and the layered surface of the mountain should yield information to scientists on the planet's geological history.

The Huffington Post, which is never quite so happy as when it’s hyperventilating, went big with a story today about a pending December announcement from the Curiosity Mars rover’s science team. “This data is gonna be one for the history books,” HuffPo accurately quoted Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), telling NPR. “It’s looking really good.”

Hard to overplay a teaser quote like that from one of NASA’s usually reserved scientists, and on the surface it does sound potentially huge. What Grotzinger was talking about was a possible finding made by the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is essentially a tiny onboard laboratory in which samples of soil and air are broken down for their constituent chemicals. One of the first things Curiosity is looking for in these early stages of the mission — and will continue looking for throughout — is methane, a powerful marker of biology on Earth and likely on Mars too, assuming life exists there.

(MORE: Rover Photos, from the Surface of Mars)

But as NPR reported in detail but HuffPo didn’t, Grotzinger and his team were nearly tripped up earlier in the mission when SAM’s sniffers indeed seemed to detect a signature whiff of methane. That set off a lot of buzzing within NASA, but the team stayed mum until they could confirm the find — and it was a good thing they did.

“We knew from the very beginning that we had this risk of having brought air from Florida,” Grotzinger told NPR. “And we needed to diminish it and then make the measurement again.”

(PhotosWindow on Infinity: Pictures from Space)

They made that correction, and the sensational data evaporated. And even if few members of the Curiosity team were around in 1996, when NASA convened a sudden, almost unheard of midday press conference to announce that they had found bacterial fossils in a Martian meteorite — only to have to walk back from the finding in the months that followed — there is enough institutional PTSD left over from that experience that nobody wants to make the same mistake again.

What’s more, even when a NASA scientist finds something that truly qualifies for the history books, there’s a difference between what’s historic for scientists and for the rest of us. The discovery of hematites, salt and other by-products of water on the Martian surface by earlier rovers had champagne corks popping and people high-fiving at JPL. You ever get excited about a hematite? No, and few other nonscientists would either — even though the finding was a critical link in the evidentiary chain that would establish the existence of Martian life.

(MORE: Mars Through the Decades — 40 Years of Exploring the Red Planet)

JPL spokesman Guy Webster made just this point today in an e-mail to TIME: “As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books,” he wrote. That’s not to say he rules out the possibility of truly big news. “It won’t be earthshaking,” he said in a later phone call, “but it will be interesting.”

And as for the scoop the NPR reporter and HuffPo announced? “John was excited about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week,” Webster wrote. “He has been similarly excited by results at other points during the mission so far.”

21 comments
jomarciniak7
jomarciniak7

Considering they've been posting every little bit of teeny tiny discoveries as quickly as twitter can spread a celebrity fued, I'd have to say restraining the launch of the best finding must mean they've discovered something big. Really big. Anything that needs numerous scientific verification that what they've come across is real. http://www.primeblog.us/2013/07/silver-lotto-system.html

mrmusic187
mrmusic187

Such nonsense. How can they walk something like that back? You can't say you're running multiple tests on something and that the results WILL be revealed the following week and then try to say that it was a misunderstanding. Uggh! exhausting cat and mouse game. No, you were not referring to the mission as a whole when describing a find for the history books, or having to run more tests. Can't retest an entire mission! Nice try though.

wretchfossil
wretchfossil

"Data for History Books": Martian Organic Molecules of Neurons & RBC's?

Dr. Grotzinger also said the data was obtained from the soil sample which Curiosity’s X-Ray Diffraction instrument (CheMin) found “amorphous” (Note 1). The “amorphous“ material mostly contains remains of Martian neurons and red blood cells:  http://www.wretch.cc/album/show.php?i=lin440315&b=20&f=1556535839&p=243

http://www.wretch.cc/album/show.php?i=lin440315&b=20&f=1556535840&p=244

The following figure shows “amorphous” neuron remains found in andesite: 

http://www.wretch.cc/album/show.php?i=lin440315&b=20&f=1556535841&p=245 

Sources of above images: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/index.cfm?FuseAction=ShowNews&NewsID=1385

http://geology.indiana.edu/mineralogy/chemin.html (See Figure 4) 

Note 1: Space.com interview with Dr. Grotzinger http://www.space.com/18599-what-did-curiosity-find-on-mars-video.html

Read more at http://wretchfossil.blogspot.tw/

wretchfossil
wretchfossil

Addendum: Additional Reasons for the Comment: 

These two figures show more reasons for the comment:

Fig. 1: shows some of the mineral-free particles that were later put into SAM instrument. They are mostly remains of blood vessels and red blood cells as shown in 

http://www.wretch.cc/album/show.php?i=lin440315&b=20&f=1556535842&p=246

Fig. 2: shows obsidian glass contains biotic brancheshttp://www.wretch.cc/album/show.php?i=lin440315&b=20&f=1556535845&p=248

Sources of above images:

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=0093MH0086001000C0_DXXX&s=93

http://www.earth.ox.ac.uk/~oesis/micro/#igneous

Read more at Read more at http://wretchfossil.blogspot.tw/

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I don't see the discovery of methane being terribly "earthshaking" or "one for the history books" with the same breathless enthusiasm indicated here.  Yes, methane was "discovered", but turned out to be contamination.  But methane has been detected from orbit, so it's pretty certain it exists.  

It's not proof of life on Mars by any stretch of the imagination.  There are differences between methanes of geological origins and organic origins.  Another thing I noted is that recently the surface radiation levels were found to be much more reasonable than previously thought, allowing man to survive at least long enough to colonize it.

What I'm getting at is I expect them to announce that Mars definitely had or even still has, life.  The record books show that many other planets have methane.  Many other planets have water in liquid form.  Many other planets (or moons, even) have the conditions necessary for life.  But "history" won't be made by saying that Mars has these things.  History will be made if it has proof that life existed (or still exists) beyond Earth.

That's pretty much what I expect to hear.  They'd have announced something that would have to be retracted if it was anything less.  They announced that a Mars meteor had fossils of bacteria that weren't fossils (which would have been proof of life had they been fossils) way back in the 1990's.  So I think they found indications of active metabolism - life - and want to be damn sure they're right this time before coming out and saying so.

THAT would be one for the history books.  Anything LESS has already been found elsewhere and inferred on Mars.  It might be "historical", but it's NOT "earthshaking".  Life on Mars would be both.

macca007
macca007

They found methane, Unfortunately the gas detected has come from inside the capsule when somebody let one off back on Earth in the factory. Now that would be an historic anouncement,One clearly for the history books as a great laugh!

On a more serious note maybe they have found water traces beneath the Martian soil more than expected or some sort of carbon compounds, Traces of life would be nice but I think that's asking too much isn't it.

paulehot
paulehot

Curiosity has probably found organics in the soil. This is the untold story of Curiosity. Finding organics would complete the Viking missions of 35 years ago. Two stationary Viking landers carried the only (3 each) experiments ever designed to look for life PROCESSES on Mars: metabolism, respiration and photosynthesis. By the criteria all three PIs agreed upon before launch, all three experiments on both landers came up with positive results. However a FOURTH experiment, the GCMS (gas chromatograph- mass spectrometer) was designed to look for organics and failed to detect any to the parts-per-million level, forcing the Viking team towards a purely chemical explanation of the results. (In 35 years of trying, no one was ever able to duplicate the Viking results chemically in labs.)

However, contrary to so many after-the-fact accounts in both textbooks and the popular media, Viking did NOT "find Mars to be lifeless." NASA's own final report on the mission called the results inconclusive but not favorable to life (because of the GCMS). To this day one of the PIs of the life detection experiments (Gilbert Levin) insists that his experiment DID detect life (it was the respiration experiment). If Curiosity finds (with SAM, a far more sensitive instrument) that there are indeed organics in the Martian soil, it will force scientists to take another look at those "inconclusive" Viking life-detection results from 1976. As I said, THAT is the untold story of the Curiosity mission!

Martian_14
Martian_14

They probably found some small organic molecule....And after a few months some guy will come up with a way to create the same molecule by inorganic means.

Mars is dead, and has been dead for a very looooong time.

RonGalaktik
RonGalaktik like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@Martian_14 They should have saved themselves the money and just asked you all the questions they had about Mars since you seem to know everything.

gunner
gunner like.author.displayName 1 Like

Check the HuffPo byline, and you'll see the story originated from the (very reputable) space.com website. How about reporting science instead of backhandedly trashing a competitor?

RonGalaktik
RonGalaktik

@gunner On one hand you are correct. On the other hand, it's a very accurate statement.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

Anything Huff Puffington gets wet over is generally nothing much worthy of much concern. But, in this case, the span of time being allotted for wild speculation and media abuse will likely lead to a huge letdown when it is finally released... which will give old Puff something else to cackle about. 

OVALintegration
OVALintegration

This was discussed tonight at the AIAA when the host wanted a hint at the new discovery. The evening was amazing! I will be sure to attend more panel discussions about space tech. I captured it on video: http://youtu.be/o_B9RIMCSeI

maflewis
maflewis like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think this article should be in the gossip section, or maybe the political section, it's certainly doesn't belong in the science section - you seem to be more interested in trying to prove that the Huffington post inaccurately reports than writing a science article.