One of the most important things to keep handy when you’re working in any kind of journalism is a nice big salt lick, just so you’ll have plenty of grains around anytime somebody reports something that seems far-fetched, too good to be true, or just plain unlikely. Case in point: last week John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the Curiosity mission, told NPR that they had discovered Something Interesting in a Martian soil sample, something that was going to be “one for the history books,” but of course they couldn’t say what it was just yet. Naturally, this news soon spread across the interwebs, leading to speculation that they might have, maybe, just possibly, found some sort of life up there on the Red Planet. Well, here we are a week later and NASA has downgraded their announcement from “earthshaking” to “interesting.”
Having been down this road before, I said last week that we should all probably manage our expectations, so hopefully no one has spent the past week printing up “LIFE ON MARS!!!” t-shirts to sell on street corners. NASA is scheduled to make their announcement on Monday, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, and with the date drawing nearer, officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have stepped in to toss some water on the flames of rampant speculation and tell us all to calm the hell down.
During a mission update today, JPL officials stamped on all our fun by saying:
Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect.At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics.
Instead of a triumphant confirmation that we’re not alone in the conference, JPL says we can expect “an update about first use of the rover’s full array of analytical instruments to investigate a drift of sandy soil.” You may scoot back from the edge of your seat now.
While I had a feeling that Grotzinger’s phrasing might be just a tad hyperbolic, this is still a lesson about how rumors and our own wishful thinking can spiral out of control quickly. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that I get to see the discovery of non-terrestrial life in my lifetime…but I really doubt that announcement is coming next week.