Mars Curiosity may have found something “Earth shaking”

Update: NASA isn’t saying what it is, still. But they have scheduled a presser for 3 Dec. Talk about firing up the rumor mill. By then Fox News will probably have a graphic up showing Obama-esque Martians coming for your guns.

Is this it? We don’t know. No one’s saying what it is outside of the instrument that reported the find:

NPR— The exciting results are coming from an instrument in the rover called SAM. “We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting,” John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, says during my visit last week to his office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. That’s where data from SAM first arrive on Earth. “The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down,” says Grotzinger. SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of.

Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” he says.

Grotzinger can see the pained look on my face as I wait, hoping he’ll tell me what the heck he’s found, but he’s not providing any more information. So why doesn’t Grotzinger want to share his exciting news? The main reason is caution. Grotzinger and his team were almost stung once before. When SAM analyzed an air sample, it looked like there was methane in it, and at least here on Earth, some methane comes from living organisms.

But Grotzinger says they held up announcing the finding because they wanted to be sure they were measuring Martian air, and not air brought along from the rover’s launchpad at Cape Canaveral.

Gentle readers I have tried my best for two days to get some clarity on this and failed. Too many people are out for the holidays and the others aren’t talking. The closest I’ve come to a good source volunteering anything is a “chemical[s] associated with some bacteria”. That’s all folks.

Speculation update: the rover and the suite of instruments involved referred to collectively as the Sample Analysis at Mars or SAM, are specifically designed to analyze soil chemistry. Ergo it makes sense to assume a substance or substances have been found in the soil that are in some way associated with living things. Speculation now rampant and completely untrustworthy seems to be leaning toward methane compounds correlated to archaea. But it could be a false positive — wouldn’t be the first time — or a completely humdrum source for the substance, etc.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    SAM = Sample Analysis at Mars
    It is not a single instrument but a module with three instruments: gas chromatograph, quadrupole mass spectrometer and tunable laser spectrometer. It analyses gases, so that pretty much circumscribes what it could have found.
    NASA has been stung a couple times by big press release events on research that later didn’t hold up well. Once was the alleged fossil microbes in a meteorite. Another was the bacteria which allegedly incorporate arsenic in their DNA. So it’s good they’re apparently attempting the peer review publication before press release route, but this teaser might blow it. You can’t float this sort of “we’ve got something big, but we can’t tell you what it is” schtick without expecting a leak.

  2. lorn says

    Martian fossils would rattle a lot of cages.

    But the single most amazing item they could find, a simultaneous world-wide jaw drop that would register on the Richter scale, would have to be finding an “Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator”.

    Of course, if it is one of those we are sooooo screwed. If Marvin gets his hands on it he is going to use it to “blow up the earth”. Hopefully Marvin isn’t paying attention to our media.

  3. lochaber says

    Someone to hold the camera and take the picture?

    (but, srsly, it’s kinda bugging me that I can’t see the arm or whatever extending out of frame – does anyone know what’s up with the pic?)

  4. julial says

    lochaber @ 8

    I got slightly creeped by the missing camera support too. Seems it was done by compositing more than one picture. Camera A takes a picture of half of Curiosity (including it’s own support arm and camera B.) Camera B takes the reverse. They stitch the two together to eliminate both support arms. It was well done and hard (meaning I can’t detect it) to tell where the pictures meet. But then, everything about Curiosity seems to have been done well.
    I hope the reveal is worth the hype, unlike the Segway.


  5. lochaber says


    Thanks, I had tineye-d the pic, and found some artical saying something similar.

    I’m not familiar enough with the design of curiosity to even know where it’s camera arm is connected, but you’d think there would be some issues with either the base of the camera arm, or the different perspectives.

    Then again, I guess if they can manage to toss a mass-spec about a dozen-million miles, land it on another planet, and still get it to work, doctoring pics is probably pretty much a non-issue.

    Although, after all the noise about the moon-landings, I wonder if there was any debate as to releasing this pic?

  6. anubisprime says

    I do not think NASA would hype this potential game changing find if it was spurious or contaminated with ‘cleaning fluid’ …

    They played down the methane debacle, content to let the cyber space speculate…but the clue was in the way they finally declared they were going top reveal atmospheric measurements in a bog standard teleconference!
    Such data if available would have required a symposium of astro biology at least or similar to reveal to the world.

    It was, as we are aware, a bit of a disappointment, but as in all things the door is not slammed shut as yet…we might just be in the wrong season and wee beasties might still be a’snooze!
    Time will tell!
    But three separate instruments, Earth based and the two missions in Mars Orbit, gave three separate readings and all were surprisingly consistent and all reported extensive methane blooms…seems a little too overwhelming to be a error that affected all three sources!

    But as I say the NASA data from Curiosity which most folks, including me, thought might be the smoking CH^4 gun, proved to be a no show.
    They knew that obviously and kept it in-house so to speak cos it was not earth shattering just frustrating.

    This apparent find has been chosen to be revealed to an American Geophysical Union conference, not a NASA chat telecon, and that is the difference this time around and what one might expect for a major discovery!

    So what have they found…?

    Smart money is on organic material…that in itself is not indicative of life in the present but it more likely to suggest there could be critters a hoppin’ around under the Martian surface.
    Organics do not last indefinitely, so it would not be ancient.

    If they hit paydirt…i.e scooped up a colony…then that would be rather sad cos Martians might consider that an act of war!
    I am sure the hive mind will make its position and temper known in time!

    But this time around I think it will be organics…and that in itself would be stupendous!

  7. leftwingfox says

    I do not think NASA would hype this potential game changing find if it was spurious or contaminated with ‘cleaning fluid’ …

    I hope not, but after the ‘arsenic based life’ hypesplosion, I can’t help but feel a bit jaded.

  8. StevoR says

    Still waiting impatiently .. Looking forward to the answer for this but trying not to get hopes too high.

    (Remembering past such over-hyped NASA anouncements eg. “Arsenic life” that wasn’t so much.)

  9. anubisprime says

    Well to be fair a couple of howlers are to be expected considering the mass of research and data collection under NASA auspices, it should not happen, but it does!…but not often!

    But something which potentially sounds like they found organics they will want check cross check and check again!
    Cos although it is not actually cast iron evidence of life on another planet, it does point a rather accusing finger at the possibility, and that is a game changer in many ways, not least future mission parameters.

    I really cannot think of another find that would warrant an American Geophysical Union conference unveiling.

    To go to that length to arrange such a platform they must be so damned sure of themselves, they did not do that with the Meteorite debacle, although if life has been discovered they might feel a little vindicated on that one, and not on the Arsenic contretemps.

    This is big, of that there should be little doubt.
    Toss up between Organics and actual life!
    Although they cannot detect life specifically I suspect certain combination of experimental instrumentation will strongly suggest bingo!

    Got to be Organics at the very least, anything less then that and they are really taking the piss!

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