NASA’s Curiosity rover has found something important and possibly historic on its trek across the red planet. But the scientists involved are staying silent until they can confirm their claims.
Sourcing from geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) is believed to have picked up a sample with massive consequences. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” Grotzinger told NPR on November 20.
SAM is a mini-lab that is capable of vaporizing parts of soil and rocks to analyze them and determine the quantities of elements like carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen within. These elements have a fantastic association: they are essential for life.
NASA will hold a press conference during the 2012 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, CA in early December, but until that time others are free to guess what news they might have to share.
If the discovery really is historic, it makes sense that NASA spends a great amount of time checking and double-checking their findings to ensure they are accurate and the time needed to do so would push back any announcement to December. But the most exciting piece comes from the fact that SAM made the discovery.
If SAM were to make any significant findings, they’d likely be tied to the discovery of organic material within soil and rock samples.
In past Martian endeavors, the Phoenix endeavor heated some soil looking for organic materials but the equipment would heat the sample too quickly and release perchlorates that would destroy the organic molecules and leave excess carbon dioxide. Before that, in the 1970s, the Viking landers also made attempts to look for organic molecules but came up with nothing.
The designers of Curiosity assumed that the perchlorates were the cause of the negative results and were skewing the results. SAM was designed to heat the samples slowly and prevent the release of perchlorates.
The presence of simple organic material wouldn’t be too incredible as it’s possible organic material came from meteorites that hit the planet. But it would be enough to suggest life on Mars. With the presence of water, all the ingredients are there.
A more shocking discovery would be complex organic material. Such a finding would be the remains of some life that existed on the planet previously, but finding complex organic material in a soil sample would be highly unlikely.
It’s fairly easy to speculate when NASA claims to have a big discovery and then stays quiet about it. The best we can do now is make moderate claims, and stay patient. It could be anything.