Speculation Is Rampant About Potential Big Discovery on Mars

The entire universe in blog form
Nov. 21 2012 8:00 AM

What Did Curiosity Find on Mars? Wait and See

Curiosity rover on Mars with a little friend
Mars Curiosity rover. Alien sold separately.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems (rover) & Shutterstock (alien)

OK, everyone, can we all take a sec and just breathe?

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

I’m getting emails, and seeing Facebook updates, blog posts, and tweets—and I bet if I look hard enough, even smoke signals—about scientists saying they’ve found something “for the history books” on Mars. This was first reported by NPR in an interesting but nearly meatless article. All we know is that the scientists who are running an instrument on the Curiosity rover called SAM—for Sample Analysis on Mars, an apparatus that can analyze material scooped up from the surface—are very excited about some preliminary results.

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Very excited. John Grotzinger, the Project Scientist for Curiosity, said in an interview, "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

And that’s all we know. We don’t know what they found. We don’t even know what sort of thing they’ve found: geologic, biologic, chemical, atmospheric, or what. We do know that Dr. Grotzinger is excited, but wants to make sure the results are valid before announcing them.

I’m seeing tons of speculation, though, and I will happily be the party pooper: don’t let your imagination run away from you. If you immediately jump to the conclusion that this is really something amazing, then when you find out what it's actually about, as exciting as it may be, it may not live up to what you think.

This has happened before. More than once. In 2010 NASA said they were holding a press conference that would “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Of course, people immediately thought “aliens.” In reality that press conference was about the discovery of what looked like bacteria that could live on arsenic, which was cool at first, but ultimately proved to be more than a little controversial (most biologists consider the claim to be debunked). In 2008 a similar announcement declared “the discovery of an object in our Galaxy astronomers have been hunting for more than 50 years" and guess what? Speculation immediately went once again to “aliens.” That one turned out to be a young galactic supernova. That’s also cool, but it ain’t aliens.

And here we go again, again. I’m seeing people saying it’s aliens, it’s organic molecules, it’s this, it’s that. And I’m getting people asking me what I think about this. So I’ll tell you what I think:

I don’t know what it is.

And I won’t guess. From Grotzinger's comments it certainly sounds like it will be scientifically interesting, and that may bleed over into being interesting to the public, too. It might very well be something terrifically cool. But we just don't know yet. And we may not find out for weeks, not until the scientists are good and ready after analyzing the data and making sure they’re seeing what they think they’re seeing.

And when that happens I’ll be right here ready to report on it and give you—literally—the straight scoop.

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