Curiosity find: what has Nasa probe discovered on Mars?

Nov 21, 2012

Nasa says announcement 'for the history books' is coming... once they have checked the data


SPECULATION is mounting that Mars rover Curiosity may have found evidence of life on the red planet after Nasa promised an announcement that is "one for the history books".

Scientists have refused to give much away and are busy double checking the results from the rover's on-board laboratory known as Sam (Sample Analysis at Mars), which breaks down soil and air samples.

One of the mission's chief scientists, John Grotzinger, got the ball rolling when he talked to a journalist from radio network NPR last week. "This data is gonna be one for the history books," he said. "It's looking really good."

However, the rest of the world will not find out what it is Curiosity has found until the start of next month, when the results are revealed at a press conference. In the meantime everyone is free to speculate about just what it is that has been found. spoke to planetary scientist Peter Smith from the University of Arizona. "If it's going in the history books, organic material is what I expect," he said. "It may be just a hint, but even a hint would be exciting."

British tabloid the Daily Star has already jumped on the story and says the finding could answer the question of whether "Martian life" existed. "Excited science geeks are now hailing it as potentially the most important news of our lifetime," it gushed.

Science website The Register is not convinced the findings will be quite so dramatic, but says: "Solid evidence of a watery surface on Mars in the past - though not as blockbusting as proof of life - would nonetheless be considered significant enough by the space agency that it would only make revelations after careful checks."

Time magazine also errs on the side of caution. "There's a difference between what's historic for scientists and for the rest of us," it points out. The discovery of "hematites, salt and other by-products of water" would all get the "champagne corks popping" at Nasa HQ, but few other places.

The original NPR report also advises caution. Early into the mission the Curiosity team thought they had discovered methane, an organic gas, on Mars, but after further tests the traces disappeared and they concluded it must have somehow arrived with the probe from Earth.

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I never cease to be amazed and impressed by the huge ingenuity of Nasa - in keeping the funding coming in for missions that maintain a small number of scientists in employment, while giving the rest of us happy snaps plus hints of hints of maybe something, possibly.

What is NASA waiting for? Can't they just come out and say, "We believe that we found X on mars. We are attempting to confirm our findings. The media will be notified when we know more."