Scientists claim to have discovered something “earthshaking” on Mars
Nancy Atkinson - Universe Today
The Mars Science Laboratory team has hinted that they might have some big news to share soon. But like good scientists, they are waiting until they verify their results before saying anything definitive. In an interview on NPR today, MSL Principal Investigator John Grotzinger said a recent soil sample test in the SAM instrument (Sample Analysis at Mars) shows something "earthshaking."
"This data is gonna be one for the history books," he said. "It's looking really good."
What could it be?
SAM is designed to investigate the chemical and isotopic composition of the Martian atmosphere and soil. In particular, SAM is looking for organic molecules, which is important in the search for life on Mars. Life as we know it cannot exist without organic molecules; however they can exist without life. SAM will be able to detect lower concentrations of a wider variety of organic molecules than any other instrument yet sent to Mars.
As many scientists have said, both the presence and the absence of organic molecules would be important science results, as both would provide important information about the environmental conditions of Gale Crater on Mars.
But something ‘Earthshaking' or "really good" probably wouldn't be a nil result.
Already, the team has found evidence for huge amounts of flowing water in Gale Crater.
If SAM does find organic material, the next step would be to determine the origin and the nature of preservation of the molecules. But the team is going to wait until they verify whatever it is they found.
As NPR's Joe Palca says in his report, "They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument."
The team is being cautious because of their experience with looking for methane in the Martian air. When one of the SAM instruments analyzed an air sample, they got a reading of methane. But, it turned out, they were likely measuring some of the air that was brought along from Florida, as air leaked into the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) while the spacecraft was awaiting launch. The initial readings from the TLS, full of methane, were very exciting to the Curiosity scientists until they realized it was from Earth.
But NPR reports that Grotzinger says it will take several weeks before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding.
In the meantime there will likely be much speculation as everyone is excited about the prospects of life – past or present – on Mars. Either would have astounding implications.
Last edited by DontxTrip on Wed Nov 21, 2012 1:16 am; edited 1 time in total
Curiosity Rover’s Secret Historic Breakthrough? Speculation Centers on Organic Molecules
By Adam Mann
Much of the internet is buzzing over upcoming “big news” from NASA’s Curiosity rover, but the space agency’s scientists are keeping quiet about the details.
The report comes by way of the rover’s principal investigator, geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, who said that Curiosity has uncovered exciting new results from a sample of Martian soil recently scooped up and placed in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.
“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” Grotzinger told NPR in an segment published Nov. 20. Curiosity’s SAM instrument contains a vast array of tools that can vaporize soil and rocks to analyze them and measure the abundances of certain light elements such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen – chemicals typically associated with life.
The mystery will be revealed shortly, though. Grotzinger told Wired through e-mail that NASA would hold a press conference about the results during the 2012 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco from Dec. 3 to 7. Because it’s so potentially earth-shaking, Grotzinger said the team remains cautious and is checking and double-checking their results. But while NASA is refusing to discuss the findings with anyone outside the team, especially reporters, other scientists are free to speculate.
“If it’s going in the history books, organic material is what I expect,” says planetary scientist Peter Smith from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Smith is formerly the principal investigator on a previous Mars mission, the Phoenix lander, which touched down at the Martian North Pole in 2008. “It may be just a hint, but even a hint would be exciting.”
Smith added that he is not in contact with anyone from the Curiosity team about their results and offered his assessment as an informed outside researcher.
Organic molecules are those that contain carbon and are potential indicators of life. During its mission, Phoenix heated a sample of soil to search for organics but these efforts were stymied by the presence of perchlorates, chemical salts that sit in the Martian soil. Perchlorates react to heat and destroy any complex organic molecules, leaving only carbon dioxide, which is abundant in the Martian atmosphere.
The Viking landers, which explored opposite sides of Mars in the late 1970s, also conducted a search for organic molecules and came up empty. For decades afterward, astronomers considered Mars to be a dead planet, with conditions not very conducive to life. After the results from Phoenix, scientists realized that perchlorates were probably messing with those earlier findings as well, and could account for their negative outcome.
Curiosity’s suite of laboratory instruments are able to slowly heat a sample in a way that doesn’t trigger the perchlorates. They can also weigh any molecules present, determining how much carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen they are made from. Simple organic compounds wouldn’t be completely shocking, said Smith, since these probably come from meteorites originating in the asteroid belt and probably are around on present-day Mars. But they would indicate that the building blocks for life are present on Mars and might only need the addition of water, which Mars had in the past, in order to produce organisms.
“If they found signatures of a very complex organic type, that would be astounding,” said Smith, since they would likely be leftovers from complex life forms that once roamed Mars. But the odds of finding such a startling result in a sample of sand scooped from a random dune are “very, very low,” Smith said.
Smith cautioned against speculating too much, since rumors have a way of spreading rapidly when it comes to any discussion of potential life on Mars. During his tenure on the Phoenix mission, his team was evaluating the interesting perchlorate results, which they kept secret during analysis. Rumors got out and then became worse and worse when some unsubstantiated report claimed a member of his team meeting was meeting with the White House.
“When you keep things secret, people start thinking all kinds of crazy things,” he said.
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