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What has Curiosity Found on Mars?

What has Curiosity found on Mars and what could it mean for the future of planetary exploration? Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Something big could be brewing on the dusty plains of Mars—but NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in Pasadena, Calif., is keeping mum as to what that discovery might be. It appears that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has found something on the Red Planet. AmericaSpace first got word of the news from #Penny4NASA when the website stated that “Earthshaking” news was on the horizon.

A recent soil sample collected and analyzed by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument apparently found something that has scientists at JPL all aflutter—but they are not saying why.

Curiosity has been using its robotic arm and its suite of scientific instruments to test out both the Martian terrain and atmosphere. What the rover as found could prove beneficial to the agency that operates the mission. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

“The Science team is analyzing data from SAM’s soil inspection, but they are not ready to discuss it yet,” said JPL’s Guy Webster when asked about what is causing all the buzz. “This is no change from the policy we have set with past results from the mission, such as SAM’s atmosphere analysis or CheMin’s soil sample analysis or the analysis of images of Hottah and other conglomerate rocks. The scientists want to have confidence in what the findings are telling them before they present them outside of the science team.”

During an interview with NPR, John Grotzinger, MSL’s principal investigator, summed up the potential discovery as “…one for the history books.” Whether this means that past or present life has been discovered on the Red Planet, or whether some resources that could be used one day by astronauts have been found, remains to be seen.

It may be several weeks before Grotzinger and company are comfortable enough to make an official announcement. This overabundance of caution is due to some potential scientific missteps that almost occurred.

Curiosity touched down on the surface of Mars on August 6, 2012 on a two year mission to seek out the clues for life on the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA / JPL

It was recently announced that the atmosphere around Curiosity’s landing site at Gale Crater had very little methane in the atmosphere. It was almost announced that the gas, a potential indicator of life, was indeed found at the site.

The SAM instrument is comprised of a number of different instruments that combine to sample the Martian terrain and atmosphere. A recent statement posted on JPL’s website points to the possibility that Curiosity may have been actually carrying the “major” announcement along with it.

Although Curiosity has departed the Rocknest patch of windblown sand and dust where it scooped up soil samples in recent weeks, the sample-handling mechanism on the rover’s arm is still holding some soil from the fifth and final scoop collected at Rocknest. The rover is carrying this sample so it can be available for analysis by instruments within the rover if scientists choose that option in coming days.

Curiosity has spent the last few weeks studying soil and rock samples. The rover employed its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on its arm, to see what “Rocknest” was comprised of. Afterward Curiosity rolled over to another target, “Point Lake.”

Curiosity is on its way to the spot where it will spend the Thanksgiving holiday, a location that should allow the one-ton rover a good overview of the terrain surrounding it.

In the coming days, Curiosity’s controllers will use the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) to scope out possible routes that it can take as it moves eastward.

Since its arriving on Mars, the Curiosity rover has exceeded the expectations of scientists and engineers. There is little doubt that the soon-to-be-made announcment will only add to Curiosity’s legacy. Photo Credit: NASA /JPl / MSSS

Depending on what this announcement is, it could prove inconvenient for the Obama White House. This year, the Obama Administration submitted its 2013 Fiscal Year Budget Proposal Request, calling for a massive cut—some 20 percent—to NASA’s Planetary Missions. This would see $309 million cut from the branch of NASA that handles missions such as MSL.

Moreover, with the U.S. facing the so-called “fiscal cliff,” having a massive finding tucked safely under its belt could provide JPL with the ammo it needs to keep the accountants at bay. Until Curiosity’s wranglers make their announcement, however, we will just have to wait and see.

NASA has since downplayed this announcement from “Earthshaking” to “interesting.” The space agency has also gone on to state that this was a “misunderstanding.”

16 comments to What has Curiosity Found on Mars?

  • […] try out its rock-boring drill for the first time on the Red Planet, scientists have said. Source: AmericaSpace  and  Space.Com var fbShare = {url: […]

  • Leonidas

    Man, I read about this yesterday on Universe Today, and I’m already lost my sleep and shaking with intense anticipation!
    What could it be? Complex organics in the soil? Fossils of ancient life? Traces of present life today? (Oh please, powers of the Universe, let it be!)

    According to Space.com, the findings will be presented at the next meeting of the American Geophysical Union which takes place Dec. 3-7 in San Francisco.

    I try not to think of the possible discovery of past or present life, cause I’ll start dancing an the ceiling form excitement and people will think I went nuts!

  • Leonidas

    I’m already preparing to rock n’ roll on the upcoming news! I have the Scorpions ‘Worlwide Live’ album and AC/DC’s ‘For those about to Rock’ armed and ready…

  • Karol

    Dear Leonides,
    I wholeheartedly share your excitement and enthusiasm over the forthcoming announcement! I only wish that Americans could see how you, a citizen of the wonderful country of Greece, take so much pride in the American space program.
    We need a world-wide celebration of the big announcement, like the Yuri’s Night Celebration that takes place every 12 April. Individuals from Paris, Pittsburgh, Perth, Pasadena, etc., etc. could join the party (I’ll bring the scotch and Doritos)! Perhaps Jason and the good folks at AmericaSpace can co-ordinate the event. We can all crank up the first music, authored by Will I. Am, played on Mars and broadcast to Earth, and raise a glass to toast the history-making discovery, Curiosity, and the NASA geniuses that made it all possible! GO NASA! GO JPL!
    As thrilled as I am about the impending announcement, I am equally disgusted at the sucker-punch to NASA planetary science in the form of a 20% budget cut of some 309 million dollars. We were nearly drowned in a billion dollar torrent of sludge on the television and radio during the election silly season, and now we plan to eviscerate the planetary science budget. AmericaSpace just told us of the cancellation of the TiME and Hopper missions, and now this. If they could cancel MAVEN to save a few dollars, they probably would. I think I’m going to have to crack open that bottle of scotch before the big announcement. Geez.

  • As I said, we are doing excellent work on Mars with Curiosity and, if there is a “big discovery,” then let’s re-target Titan and Europa with the TiME and Hopper missions. Such exploration and discovery is too big to put on the back burner. I say again, we can always “find the money!” Let’s also proceed with a Mars sample-return mission as soon as possible.

    • Leonidas

      I’m still grinding my teeth over the cancellation of those two missions!

      Man, to sail the seas of Titan and be able to have a front-row seat view as well! (I’m already drooling over this…)

  • Nah

    Nah, it’s probably just something scientists get excited about like seismic activity…

    • Karol

      Yeah, who could possibly get excited about seismic activity . . . like volcano Loci on the surface of the most seismically active body in our solar system, Jupiter’s moon Io, which erupts material three hundred miles high into the atmosphere, or the plumes erupting from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus which initial Cassini sampling has found to contain organic molecules. You speak for many of us Leonides when you wonder what may exist in the ethane oceans of Titan, or in the water? under the icy crust of Enceladus. But apparently, all y’all don’t need no NASA when yuh got NASCAR!

      • Leonidas

        Karol, the initial post that you answered above about seismic activity, wasn’t mine…

        • Karol

          Leonides, I knew that the post about seismic activity was not yours – it would be very difficult to find someone more enthusiastic about NASA and planetary exploration than YOU Leonides! I’m glad and grateful that you’re on my/our side in the battle against NASA budget cuts. Hey I would love to see seismic activity on Mars, the home of Olympus Mons (yet another contribution from Greece) an extinct volcano that would cover the state of Utah if on Earth. Sulfur-rich volcanic vents on the deep ocean floor teem with extraordinarily unique life wholly “alien” to that found anywhere else on our planet. For now, we can only speculate about the volcanoes on Jupiter’s Io. “Marsquakes” would probably provide a bonanza of information to geologists about what exists deep beneath the crust of Mars. Sorry if my post was so unclear as to cause any misunderstanding Dear Friend, I must be suffering from battle fatigue from fighting for so long in the war against those who would eviscerate NASA.

    • Nah

      Told you so!
      NASA is backpedaling now. The nature of Curiosity’s discovery has been downgraded from “earthshaking” to “interesting,” and many are crying foul. They feel misled, cheated and deceived, and Grotzinger has been roundly condemned for blowing the discovery out of proportion. Should we feel this feel? Sure. Hell, I feel it. But this fiasco presents a unique opportunity to talk about how scientists should (and shouldn’t) conduct themselves in the public eye — and why, sometimes, overzealous researchers may be exactly what we need.

      First, some context. For the last few days, NASA spokesperson Guy Webster has been working overtime to set the record straight on Curiosity’s “earthshaking” discovery and curb public expectations before next week’s announcement on the findings (to be delivered at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union). The hype, it would seem, has stemmed from a big misunderstanding. Yesterday, Webster told CBS News that “the rumors about what the results are from the SAM instrument on Curiosity are quite overblown… There’s nothing earthshaking. The news conference next week will be one in a series trying to keep people up to date about the rover’s progress and findings.”

      Webster has also described Curiosity’s SAM data to various other news outlets as “interesting” and (this is my favorite) “not insignificant.”

      I hope Curiosity finds something cool but don’t believe the hype!

  • Leonidas

    Karol, I understand and sympathise with you completely. It’s always refreshing and exhilarating to talk with people who can understand the value of space exploration.

    You know, even though I am a member of The Planetary Society and I fully endorse their cause, I many times get annoyed by their tendency to promote robotic planetary exploration at the expense of manned spaceflight (or at least that’s the impression I’m being given). I feel that this is a false dichotomy, and one that only harms space exploration on the long run. Besides from the fact that robotic exploration isn’t that much better, efficient and cost-effective as we’d like to make ourselves believe (but that’s another story!).

    Oh Karol, can you imagine a Solar System where life could possibly have evolved in so many different places and combinations? Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, and Io? Even though 50 years have passed since the first interplanetary probes, we’ve just scratched the surface! There are so many things waiting to be discovered out there! People say ‘Oh, maybe we discover some microbes, what’s the big deal?’ and I say ‘What the hell is wrong with you people??’ We could discover that Earth is a member of a bigger club. If that’s not important, then the word ‘importance’ has really lost its meaning! Whatever is more important is beyond me.

    And it’s not only the discovery of life. Cause human space exploration is so much more than ‘flags and footprints’ (but that’s another story also!).

    With best regards,

    Leonidas

    (P.S. My first try to answer didn’t get through and I had to rewrite the whole post! I hope this one succeeds!)

    • Karol

      Leonides, I too am a member of the Planetary Society, and have been since the early days of it’s inception under the guidance of Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman. I wholeheartedly agree with the core purpose of the Society – planetary exploration, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and inspiring young people to pursue greater knowledge in space science. Like you Leonides, I have concerns and reservations as to some of the directions the Society has taken. For one, I agree with you that the Society seems to place an almost exclusive interest in robotic space exploration. Obviously from Lunokhod through Viking, Pioneer, Voyager to Opportunity and Curiosity our robotic probes have returned a treasure trove of priceless information, but perhaps a method of exploration combining human exploration with robotic assistance would be useful. During Apollo 17 Harrison Schmidt found intriguing “red soil” on the Moon which may not have been found by a robot. Imagine if several small robots could have accompanied the Apollo crews to aid in their exploration, perhaps performing mundane tasks like drilling for soil samples. Opportunity is doing a fantastic job exploring the Martian surface, far in excess of it’s design life, while it’s twin, Spirit, is inactive due to being inextricably mired in soft Martian soil. If an astronaut was present, he could have “put a foot on the bumper and pushed”. I have also read an article in “The Planetary Report” of the Society adamantly advocating for increased funding for commercial space while urging the elimination of our current manned program of space exploration because it is made up of second-hand obsolete components. If the Society, which is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) entity wishes to urge it’s membership to petition Congress to take action which would accrue to the benefit of a for profit corporation, it should at least advise it’s membership that Elon Musk of SpaceX is a member of it’s board of advisors. I have also noticed the unfortunate substantial increase in the number of solicitations for donations from the Society since the days of Sagan and Friedman. It seems that any communication I receive, other than “The Planetary Report” from the Society is yet another solicitation for a donation. “The Planetary Report” is a fine publication, and I will probably continue my membership in the Society, but I believe that the Society needs to change its position on our manned space program. You’re right Leonides, human space exploration is much more than “flags and footprints”. Yes, our robotic spacecraft are amazing, irreplaceable, providers of invaluable knowledge, but nothing NOTHING fires the imagination, inspiration, and dreams like human exploration. They are interdependent. Human explorers are far more effective when accompanied by robotic assistants, and even a highly advanced robot can use an astronaut foot on the bumper every now and then. Best wishes Leonides!

  • Leonidas

    Yes Karol, you’re so right, and you put it so eloquently! I’m so happy to find people that can share this view!

    Carl Sagan was a founding member of the Planetary Society, and it seems that people forget that he advocated strongly for an international/combined US/Soviet humans-to-Mars program. He understood the value of this. In his last book ‘Pale Blue Dot’ he magnificently emphasised the value and importance of human space exploration, something that the Planetary Society seems to have forgotten. And you’re right, almost every communication I recieve from the Scoiety is yet another solicitation for a donation. And their whole viewpoint ‘Kill the government space program, invest on commercial space instead’ is highly frustrating and disillusioned! If this keeps up, they will lose me the next time my membership expires. There is also the National Space Society which I discovered recently, which is perfectly aligned with my personal viewpoint: that the ultimate goal of manned space exploration is space settlement and they are advocating for that. I only regret that I’m unnemployed for almost a year now, and I can’t afford to send them a membership right now. And the 50 bucks I sent to the Planetary Society were savings I made from the unemployment alleviation package I received and I haven’t even received the Planetary Report yet -but the solicitation for a donation mail kept coming alright…

    I tried to share with you some web links of some wonderful articles about the disillusionment of ‘New Space’ and the grave mistake that the abandonmebt of the manned space program represents, but the comments section here on AmericaSpace seem to not accept them. Oh well..

    The robotic exploration program is so wonderful in its own right, and I’m 100% behind it, provided that we keep things in perspective and don’t lose the human equation! The space program really doesn’t need this type of debate! It only hurts it in the long run.

    And to use an analogy, it’s like you want to plan your vacation to Paris, and because you conclude that it’s very expensive and potentially dangerous, because you *might* get hurt, you decide to send a robotic rover instead, that sends you back wonderful pictures of the city of Paris. But it isn’t exactly the same like going to Paris on your own now, is it?

    Like wanting to have sex without being physically there…

    During the 1960’s there were also robotic missions right up there alongside the Apollo program. Apollo 12 itself landed near Surveyor 3. The attitude was that robotic exploration was complementary to manned spaceflight, paving the way for human excursion to follow (an attitude that we lost along the way). But every single person excited with space exploration, every young boy and girl wanting to become an astronaut, had a poster of the archetypical picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon, hung on their bedroom wall. How many had a poster of the Surveyor unmanned lander?