Space might be one of the few arenas where a no news becomes news. This week the internet is buzzing about a new discovery from the Mars Curiosity team that some people are hinting at may be a sign of life. Of course, the Curiosity team can’t yet talk about it because they don’t have complete results. Riveting, isn’t it?
First, some background. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity is a mobile chemistry lab. It’s been in an area scientists have named Rocknest for a few weeks, scooping up soil and dumping it into its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments.
SAM is the one that has everyone talking right now. The instrument is designed to investigate the chemical and isotopic composition of the Martian atmosphere and samples collected on the surface, looking specifically for for carbonaceous material (organic compounds). SAM is interesting because it’s able to detect lower concentrations of a wider variety of organic molecules than any other instrument ever sent to Mars. All hail technological advancements!
But we have to remember that Curiosity isn’t looking specifically for life. MSL’s primary goal is to quantitatively assess the habitability of Mars for past or present life. It’s part of the decades old search for life on Mars, but it’s indirect. Only Viking 1 and 2, the twin landers that reached the planet in 1976, were designed to look directly for life; subsequent missions have been more focused on individual aspects surrounding the question of life on Mars.
The big news from the MSL team today, the non-news, is that SAM has spotted something interesting in a soil sample. But since MSL is looking for signs of habitability, it’s highly unlikely (I’m wary of saying never, just in case!) that what it’s found is a sure sign of life. Even if there are traces of the building block of life on Mars, that doesn’t mean they ever came together in a way that enabled life to spring up and evolve.
In an interview on NPR today, MSL Principal Investigator John Grotzinger hinted at the news. Sort of. He called the results streaming down from Mars to his computer earthshaking. “This data is gonna be one for the history books,” he said. “It’s looking really good.”
Technicians installing the 88-pound SAM instrument into Curiosity
Of course, he can’t be any more specific than that. The MSL team is caught in the classic problem all scientists face: they have good looking data hinting at something really exciting, but they need to make sure the results are legit before they can announce their findings to the world. To make things worse for us on the outside, the team plans to run a long series of tests verifying the data before announcing anything.
The team is likely being extra cautious after the methane incident from a few weeks back. An early SAM test revealed methane in the Martian atmosphere, a gas that on Earth is made by living organisms (mainly cows passing gas, evidently). But when they repeated the experiment the methane was gone. It seemed Curiosity took a memento from home to Mars in the form of some Floridian air.
Already, the news that’s not really news is sparking some interesting reactions online.
Some people are outraged that NASA is teasing the masses with something potentially huge; the argument is that we, as the taxpayers who paid for the mission, ought to have access to the raw data and make our own conclusions. A lot of people are calling the team obnoxious for taunting us with a “we have something cool and you can’t have it” type of announcement.
If anyone’s at fault for making something out of nothing, the media is to blame. Articles have been popping up all day about the non-news that’s big news, the earth shattering story without much content, and the hype about nothing (yet). I don’t think MSL’s science team is being obnoxious, they’re being good scientists by making sure they have a real result before making an announcement. What wrong with scientists taking their time? Isn’t anticipating something exciting sort of fun?
It’s going to be weeks before the MSL team has confirmed their results and can announce what it is they’re seeing at JPL right now. In the meantime, we’re sure to see speculation yield some interesting ideas about what the team has found. Nothing sparks outlandish ideas like imaginations roaming free with thoughts of little green men or however you imagine Martian life might look. It’s also very possible that the results might be extremely meaningful for the science team but less exciting for the average American. The (false) announcement of methane on Mars, for example, was exciting, but didn’t mean much to a lot of people.
Until MSL scientists make their big announcement, we get to play the waiting game. Or we can take a cue from Homer Simpson and play Hungry Hungry Hippos.