Rumors are swirling that NASA is in the middle of verifying some very interesting results from Curiosity’s soil sample analyzer. Few know what has them all aflutter, but since one of Curiosity’s major objectives is investigate Mars’ habitability, most guesses involve the discovery of organic compounds. For now, NASA is keeping quiet.
Now, I’m a big fan of science. When I was born, we knew of the nine planets in our solar system. Now there are eight and potentially dozens of “dwarf planets.” When the first exoplanet was discovered in the early nineties, I clipped out the articles from various newspapers and kept them all in a box, delighted to be living in such an era. Now there are over 3000 potential or confirmed exoplanets. If there’s any sort of real legacy humans can leave behind, I think it’s the knowledge we help amass by exploring, questioning, and analyzing.
So yes, I’m as excited to see what Curiosity beamed home as the next person, but I think NASA is right to play things down a bit. If the results are inconclusive or misleading, then hey—at least we’ve still got a robot on Mars that’s doing all sorts of incredible stuff. Even a disappointing result is more knowledge, which is the whole reason for going, right?
But Curiosity’s mission is NOT to conclusively determine if life does or ever did exist on Mars, it’s to give us information about what’s in the soil so we can determine the potential for past and present habitability. Of course, with all of those instruments and cameras it’s always possible that Curiosity could discover something beyond those parameters (it could snap a photo of Martian gophers popping their heads out of the orange soil), but don’t count on it.
What we do know for certain is that the data comes from SAM, the sample analyzer, so the latest discovery is almost certainly microscopic. I’d guess that they’re organic compounds that suggest favorability towards life existing or having existed, that improve the potential for habitability, but I don’t know the first thing about chemistry. So, until the press conference, that’s the best I’ve got.
No matter what they announce in the next few weeks, though, the fact is that we’re very rapidly approaching a point at which, if there really is or has been life on Mars, we’ll be able to tell. Are we ready? We’ve been gazing up at the stars for generations, wondering if we’re alone. What if we’re not? What if life here actually started there? Will our society change as much as it did for Galileo? If we’re lucky, we won’t have to wait much longer to find out.
Update: Alas, Mars disappoints. Like most rumors that sound too good to be true and all trace back to a single online source, this one has failed. But hey, “we still don’t know” is way better than “we’ve discovered the answer, and it’s no.”