One of the main mission goals of NASA’s Curiosity rover is to search for evidence of life on Mars — both any signs of it currently, or further insight as to whether it might have existed in the past. Sure, the former is a definitely long-shot, but you never know, right? I’m fairly certain Curiosity isn’t going to wander into a secret subterranean Martian city, but life could be found in more humble forms, such as bacteria. With all that taken into account, when NASA scientists start hinting that they have some major Curiosity/Mars-related announcement coming up, you can probably guess how websites all over the internet are going to react.
OMG THEY FOUND LIFE ON MARS!!!!!!!!!!!!
Which is all well and good, presuming they, you know, actually did find life on Mars. But they haven’t said that. Not yet. So while the science geek in me wants to seize on that wondrous possibility and begin jumping up and down, the cynical, misanthropic journalist in me is doing its level best to moderate my expectations.
So: here’s the skinny. As reported by NPR, NASA has Something To Tell Us, but they can’t tell us what that Something is. Because there is Science to be done, and that Science involves doing their best to confirm that the Something actually is a Something, rather than a Nothing, or possibly even a Something Else. John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the Curiosity mission, told NPR reporter Joe Palca, “We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting.” The SAM is an instrument on Curiosity that can sample air or soil from Mars and determine its composition.
If Grotzinger’s “something interesting” description seems a little too staid for the announcement of life on Mars — assuming that’s what this is — here’s a quote that makes things even more…well, interesting. “This data is gonna be one for the history books.”
Well, evidence of life on Mars would indeed be “one for the history books.” But that doesn’t mean that’s what this is. If for no other reason than that the things that a NASA scientist would consider earth-shattering aren’t necessarily the things that would blow the minds of the general public. There are plenty of other genuinely significant scientific discoveries that NASA could be keeping a lid on that don’t rise to the “holy crap” level of extraterrestrial life.
Grotzinger says it will likely be several weeks before NASA is ready to make the announcement, whatever it may be. Expect the “possible life on Mars” headlines to fly fast and furious during that time. As for us, we’re betting on it being a really pretty rock and hoping to be pleasantly surprised.