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.”