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.