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.
“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.
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.
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.”