Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Great NASA Mars Tease?

A curious little story popped up on a number of geek-oriented websites a few days ago, just as all good 'Murricans were preparing to stuff ourselves with turkey.

During an interview with NPR - National Public Radio, our boutique nod to noncommercial broadcasting - John Grotzinger, head of the Curiosity rover science team, let drop an interesting little hint. An instrument called Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) had showed results 'earthshaking' results.

SAM contains chemical sensors, and part of its job is looking for, well, signs of organic chemistry. Said Grotzinger, "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

Which, apparently, is all we are going to get, at least for now. The story at io9 says only that we will have to wait a few weeks for actual, checked-out results. The version at CNET says that the official findings will be released during the American Geophysical Union conference, December 3-7, here in San Francisco. (Earthshaking?)

The usual provisos apply. NASA has been known to jump the gun in the past. The Curiosity mission itself already had one false alarm, when methane was detected. Methane on Earth is largely biogenic. (The largest single source is said to be cattle farts.) Alas, the methane in question may well have been bovine, since it evidently went to Mars along with the rover itself.

Also, one news outlet that conspicuously did not carry the story was Sky & Telescope. Aimed at informed laypeople, it is my usual go-to site for allegedly Awesome Cosmic News. The given facts about Grotzinger's NPR interview are not in doubt. Whether it means what everyone thinks it could mean another matter.

Which is why I am, for now, describing the whole thing as a tease. Dropping a hint just before a national holiday, on a radio show with a small if upscale audience, is just the sort of thing you do when you think you might have dynamite, but don't want to put your neck too far out in case it doesn't pan out.

Chances are that it will come to nothing, such as instrumental error. Or that it will come to something important, in a scientific sense ... but not Life On Mars.

And even if there is, it might be colonists from Earth who got there aboard spacecraft. Just like a 1950s story, except microbes instead of people. The mission profile is a lot easier, and we probably haven't scrubbed all those probes quite as thoroughly as we might have.

Or, on the other hand ... perhaps we just hit the jackpot.


Update: "Big Oops!"

Well, at least according to Slate, it turns out that this whole story was - wait for it - a misunderstanding. According to NASA

What Grotzinger was actually trying to convey is that Curiosity’s data over her entire two-year mission will further our knowledge of Mars more than ever before, making it a historical mission.

The Slate piece goes on to say that the findings to be reported at the American Geophysical Union meeting are merely 'interesting,' not earth-shaking.

From a strictly San Francisco perspective, this is arguably good news.

Needless to say, the temptation to be conspiratorial about all this is irresistable. (I called it a tease, after all!) But it is probably another case where one should not attribute to malice that which is explainable by stupidity.

Not stupidity, exactly, but over-eagerness. Anyone who doesn't think it would be Awesome to find evidence of life on Mars has no business reporting on the Curiosity mission, much less being part of it. It would be the least of surprises if a boilerplate comment about How Cool This Mission Is took on a life of its own.

Having said that, something still could very well turn up. And how cool would that be?

The teasing image, of Titian's Mars, Venus, and Love, seems to come from an art reproduction website.


Brett said...

I don't think Curiosity can directly detect life, although it could find methane or organic molecules. The general speculation I've seen over at the Bad Astronomy/Cosmoquest forums is that it probably found organic molecules, which would be interesting but not proof of life (meteorites could have brought them in the past).

The most optimistic take I found was someone claiming that it could be a finding that would validate one or more of the positive Viking results.

That said, if it was something that was very strong evidence of life, it would be quite a bolt out of the blue. Curiosity got the finding in a bunch of sand.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your title; this is probably just a tease. A ploy to keep public interest in NASA. I won't get hopeful until I see pictures of fossils or something along those lines. Trace readings of organic compounds are not enough to excite me. If there is extraterrestrial life in the solar system, I think our best bet is Europa. It's supposed to have liquid water. Now. Not ages in the past. If I were in charge of NASA, the next mission would be probes to Europa. I'd have a "rover" that would burrow through the ice and hopefully explore the dark, watery depths. A satellite would orbit Jupiter, photographing the complex storm patterns while maintaining communications with Europa.

Anonymous said...

Europa is interesting, but to get there takes years, and you have to deal with a relatively more harsh environment. Mars takes about a year to get to, is close enough to the Sun to enable solar powered missions, and isn't orbiting a large planet spewing radiation. We also have a better idea of conditions on the surface to plan for them with some confidence, unlike Europa.

I'm not saying that Europa is impossible to get to, but Mars being easier helps make it a favored target for missions. There is more data on Mars than Europa, which leads the desire for more data and specific plans on how to get that data. Which helps get a plan approved when there is a risky plan and a relatively safer more safer plan.

Back to topic, I'm hoping that this less of a tease and more of something significant, though I'm not knowledgeable enough to guess as to what.


Anonymous said...

The question is will it be 'earthshaking' results for the general public or scientists?

Remember the big news from the Phoenix lander was the discovery of perchlorate in Martian soil. That was big news for scientists, but the general public's response was "per-what?"


jollyreaper said...

Cryptic announcements like this always precede major letdowns.

jollyreaper said...


Brett said...


To be fair, that was pretty big news in terms of finding organic molecules and life on Mars. I've read arguments that perchlorate might be why the Viking Lander tests turned up negative on organic molecules.


Worse with Europa is the whole "digging through kilometers or even tens of kilometers of ice" factor. Imagine the type of equipment you'd need on the lander to do that.

Anonymous said...

Would a radioactive underside do the trick? The rover could just sit there and let the ice underneath melt away.

Tony said...

Every once in a while scientific types get excited about something really exciting. Whether this is one of those times, who knows?

Scott said...

Worse with Europa is the whole "digging through kilometers or even tens of kilometers of ice" factor. Imagine the type of equipment you'd need on the lander to do that.

RITG powering a hotplate, though keeping the probe from getting spit up from the bottom of the hole when it breaks through would be quite a trick.

Oh, and I had to refresh the captcha 3 times before finding one I could actually read...

Anonymous said...


Interesting point about ice. I have to admit I'm not knowledgeable about Europa, which is why I avoided specifics.


Rob Lopez said...

Talking of Mars teases, Elon Musk says he wants to set up a colony on Mars. Says it will cost [only] $36 Billion.
I want whatever he's been smoking. Perhaps Curiosity can find traces of it...

Byron said...

There are times I wish that science was allowed to keep its results to itself until it was ready to publish. The stuff with OPERA last year springs to mind. At the time, I suspected experimental error. So did they, but nobody bothered to report that. Maybe if we required science writers to have degrees in science...

Thucydides said...

Sadly, not even enough data to really speculate.

OTOH, here is an idea for a simple, rugged nuclear reactor that could power the next generations of space probes (and with suitable tweaking) spacecraft:

This would have some real applications on Mars and even farther afield, powering larger and more capable missions.

Brett said...

I've read some reports that nothing particularly big is coming out at the conference, and that the idea that there will be a big announcement is a misunderstanding.

*Sigh*. I was hoping that Curiosity would find something huge.

Rick said...

Alas, it does seem to have been a misunderstanding. :-(

See my update to the original post.

Paul Carr said...

If they did detect organics in the soil, that would invalidate the major argument against the Viking Labelled release Experiment's positive detection of life.

Brett said...

The presentation went through. They found some interesting looking sands, but the traces of organic are in question until they can make sure that they didn't just arrive with Curiosity.

It also looks like we're getting another Mars rover. There's been some dissatisfaction about this, that it might yank funding from other potential planetary projects, but apparently it's coming from funding that wouldn't be dedicated to anything else.

Rick said...

According to Sky & Telescope the organics may have been cooked up by the experimental apparatus.

Also, a new post is up, A Song of Fire and Ice.