NASA scientists may have discovered (what appears to be) organic chemistry on Mercury, but don’t boil over with excitement for a similar announcement about Mars on Monday. NASA has dampened hopes that, at the AGU conference at San Francisco next week, mission scientists of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will announce the discovery of organics in Martian soil.
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“Organicsgate” all began with MSL lead scientist John Grotzinger when he was chatting with an NPR reporter earlier this month. At the time, Grotzinger was apparently overviewing data sent back from Mars rover Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. Obviously forgetting the media was present, Grotzinger proclaimed, “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”
Cue the NPR headline: “Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now.”
Boom. Speculation was rampant.
Hell, I even got excited and speculated that, as one of the prime mission directives for the SAM instrument is to characterize organic chemistry in the Mars soil, perhaps the announcement will be… organic chemistry on Mars! That would be a historic discovery, right? Well, yes, but NASA has announced that they will neither be confirming or denying the presence of organic chemistry on Mars at the AGU on Monday. So. There.
“Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect,” a NASA statement reads. “At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics.”
Key word here: definitive.
On Wednesday, feeling the world’s expectant gaze, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden even told reporters during a tour of the ULA rocket assembly plant in Alabama that Curiosity hasn’t discovered life on Mars: “We’ve not made any earth-shattering discoveries yet, to my knowledge.”
Speculation about organics is one thing, but speculation about life is quite another. The discovery of organic chemistry anywhere else in the solar system is always exciting, but it is not evidence for Martian life — it’s just one component of the biological jigsaw puzzle.
As pointed out by the NASA statement, Curiosity is only in its fourth month of a two-year primary mission on Mars. The mission has only just begun, so expecting an announcement about the discovery of Mars organics so early in the mission is over optimistic. Science takes time, and whether or not these preliminary results hint at organic compounds we’ll have to wait a while longer for any “historic” announcements.
Image: A recent view from Curiosity’s front hazcam on sol 112 of the MSL mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech