Martian Mystery: What Has Curiosity Discovered?

There’s some indication that the Curiosity Rover has found something significant in its recent testing of Martian soil samples:

Science isn’t something that just happens overnight. It takes many measurements, oodles of analysis, re-testing and re-analysis before any groundbreaking announcement can be made.

So, on the surface of Mars, inside Gale Crater on a plain called Aeolis Palus, our tenacious six-wheeled Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is doing cutting-edge laboratory work on an alien world and mission scientists are itching to announce a “historic” discovery.

“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” John Grotzinger, lead scientist of the MSL mission, said in an interview with NPR.

But what is he referring to and why all the secrecy?

For the past few weeks, rover Curiosity has been busily scooping dirt from a sandy ridge in a geologically interesting location called “Rocknest.” Using a little scooper attached to its instrument-laden robotic arm, Curiosity has been carefully digging, shaking and dumping the fine soil grains into its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments.

Recently, NASA announced some results from SAM after analyzing samples of Mars air. Interestingly, clues as to Martian atmospheric history were uncovered. Also, mission scientists announced an apparent dearth of methane in the air — a result that undoubtedly frustrated many hoping for the detection of the gas that may, ultimately, reveal the presence of sub-surface microbial life.

It appears that SAM has made yet another profound discovery… but mission scientists are keeping quiet for the time being.One of the prime mission objectives is for Curiosity is to understand the past and current habitability for life on the Red Planet. Curiosity can not directly detect the presence of Mars life, but it has been kitted-out with miniature laboratories capable of not only establishing what materials soil samples contain, but also whether the Mars soil contains carbon-laden organic molecules.

Should Curiosity detect these organics, the mission will have confirmed the presence of the building blocks of life on the surface of Mars. This does not, however, infer the genesis of life on Mars, it just means that some of the ingredients are there.

According to this NPR article, Grotzinger refers to the SAM data as being the source of the excitement. Indeed, one of the instrument’s objectives is to address “carbon chemistry through a search for organic compounds, the chemical state of light elements other than carbon, and isotopic tracers of planetary change,” according to the JPL mission site.

Might these data indicate the detection of organic chemistry? This would certainly be “historic” news. Also, this would back up the Viking landers’ likely discovery of organics in the 1970s – a result that could only be confirmed after Mars lander Phoenix made the groundbreaking 2008 discovery that the Martian surface is laced with perchorates.

This is all speculation, of course, until the announcement is made but it certainly sounds like there’s something exciting brewing over at JPL. Stay tuned.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Curiousity tried to pick up a rock and it ran away.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Good one Stormy!

  3. Brett says:

    I’ve heard that we’ll find out next wednesday, when they present the results (not to a press conference, thankfully). I hope this isn’t a repeat of the incident where they built up a ton of hype over some scientists figuring out how to make bacteria use arsenic in their biological processes.

    From what I’ve read, the most awesome thing would be if they found “right-handed” amino acids. That would be a pretty strong indicator of distinctively alien life, although not absolute proof. The gas measuring thing might have found the missing methane in the soil, too.

  4. Gustopher says:

    They have found advertisements.

    Marketing companies have gotten to Mars first, and the Curiosity Rover it sitting directly in front of a billboard for Camel cigarettes. It is expected that the announcement will increase brand recognition by 20% with important demographics (young kids, just beginning to choose their addictions)

  5. rudderpedals says:

    It discovered the missing Romney votes…

    …or something that appears to be a fossil

  6. Scott says:

    I suspect any discovery will be extremely exciting to scientists and involved laymen. However, while they may be excited, the average joe will not not realize the importance and go ho-hum and wonder “is that it?”

    It is too bad that the everyday person doesn’t appreciate the implications. Failure of science education to excite the imagination.

  7. MBunge says:

    It’s a Thark hatchery.

    Mike

  8. MBunge says:

    @Scott: “It is too bad that the everyday person doesn’t appreciate the implications.”

    Since current science tells us that the everyday person is probably NEVER going to Mars and is certainly NEVER going anyplace outside this solar system and that nobody from anyplace (if they exist) is EVER coming here…what meaningful implications would the discovery have to the everyday person?

    Mike

  9. Scott says:

    @MBunge: Maybe I’m doing my own projecting but big questions like place in the universe, the idea of dreaming big, etc. Maybe I watched “October Sky” one too many times I’d like to think that I’m an average person who still gets excited when I see a meteor flash across the sky.

  10. @Scott:

    That’s probably true. The Higgs-Boson discovery was one of the most important announcements in physics in years but outside of experts and, as you said, involved lay people who have an interest in the subject if not the expertise, most people don’t really understand what it’s all about. And, of course, the media describing it as “the God Particle” just dumbs the entire thing down.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Well, not exactly a prediction, but a little birdie told me that Exxon, Shell, and BP have filed for drilling permits with the relevant agencies… Just sayin’.

  12. PJ says:

    Jimmy Hoffa and/or Amelia Earhart.

  13. @PJ:

    I have it on good authority that Jimmy Hoffa is in a bridge abutment on the New Jersey Turnpike

  14. John Burgess says:

    They found an ancient cemetery in which the remains of many relatives of Marvin the Martian are buried. The surprise is that Marvin was only 2.25mm tall.

    @Doug Mataconis: So all those stories about the pitcher’s mound at Wrigley Field are wrong?

  15. Whitfield says:

    What will probably happen will be a lot of build up as is going on now, and then some sort of announcement to the effect that it was a mistake. Translation: the government got on it and now it is top secret and will be classified until 2212!! What they should have done was given all the findings and documents to every news agency and let them announce it . The last group they should tell would be the government. Look at what happened with the infamous Kecksburg Incident!! Still classified and people threatened if they talk!

  16. Mr. Replica says:

    /SHAKES FIST AT PJ

    I was going to say Jimmy Hoffa!

    I’ll just go with my back-up…

    Curiosity found Obama’s real long-form birth certificate.

    Take that birthers, you were still wrong!

  17. Argon says:

    It’s probably a good thing they keep it under wraps until they check things out. NASA has had a poor history of holding press conferences about ‘exciting discoveries in biology’. Case in point, the claims that a NASA funded researcher found bacteria that could incorporate arsenic into various molecules including DNA. That bogus claim was derided within hours after the press conference.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Whitfield:

    Look at what happened with the infamous Kecksburg Incident!! Still classified and people threatened if they talk!

    You were warned about speaking about this. You were told to not even bring it up. Now we will have to teach you a lesson…..

    😉

  19. Whitfield says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Thanks for the alert. I’ll lay low for awhile. Maybe blend in all of the crowds on Black Friday. Hope I don’t stand out or arouse suspicion.