Apparently, the Mars rover Curiosity has found something BIG, but scientists can’t tell us what it is quite yet. One of Curiosity’s tools, the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument that analyzes air and soil samples looking for organic compounds, recently collected “really interesting” data from a sample of Martian soil. That has the scientists working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Curiosity is controlled, really excited (for more information, see this article or listen to it here). Curiosity’s chief investigator, John Grotzinger, said that “it’s one for the history books,” but won’t share the results for a few more weeks, until scientists have been able to verify the data (whatever it is). The last thing that any scientist would want to do is announce a discovery that turns out to be wrong, the result of faulty instruments or an error in analysis.
Curiosity grabs a sample of Martian soil. (source)
Of course, as soon as somebody says, ‘I’ve discovered something cool, but can’t tell you,’ people will start speculating. Given how much talk there has been about the possibility that life exists (or once existed) on Mars, it’s logical to think that Curiosity has found something that would indicate to scientists that there is, in fact, life on another planet. That evidence could be some chemical trace that implies something is alive on Mars, direct evidence of something currently living on Mars (like microbes in the soil) or even a microfossil. The search for life on another planet has long been one of the big goals of space exploration. So if we’ve finally found life out there, now what?
What do you think Curiosity has found? And do you think it might be important? Stay tuned, because we should all find out in a few weeks!
UPDATE – DECEMBER 5: Well, it turns that Curiosity didn’t exactly find life on Mars - yet. At the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco, Curiosity researchers revealed that Curiosity’s SAM instrument found water and complex chemicals called perchlorates that include oxygen and chlorine in their mix. Although perchlorates are toxic substances, scientists believe that they might be an energy source for some types of microbes. There are some indications that organic compounds have been found by Curiosity, but scientists are checking to make sure that these are actually from Mars and were not brought from Earth by Curiosity itself. So the search for life on Mars continues, and Curiosity is now cleared to participate in that search for a lot longer than planned: Curiosity’s two-year mission has now been extended indefinitely by NASA, so it could continue doing science on the surface of the Red Planet into the next decade. NASA also announced that it is planning to send a follow-on Rover mission to Mars in 2020. For more information, check out this story.