Having already dialed back expectations over the phrase “earth-shaking findings,” NASA is nonetheless expected to announce something the Curiosity rover discovered while analyzing sand on Mars.
Scientists do not expect to hear this afternoon that life has been discovered on the Red Planet, reported Wired, but they think it is possible that some type of organic material was discovered.
At noon EST, NASA will reveal the findings during the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The findings will come from the results of the first full use of analytical tools on the car-size mobile lab to study sand on a Martian drift.
“If it’s going in the history books, organic material is what I expect,” said planetary scientist Peter Smith, who was the principal investigator on the Phoenix lander mission to Mars, which touched down at the Martian North Pole in 2008. “It may be just a hint, but even a hint would be exciting.”
NASA had to walk back expectations after Curiosity mission chief scientist John Grotzinger was quoted as saying that the rover had found something “for the history books.”
"What John Grotzinger was saying as our very capable project scientist on MSL is exactly the case," James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told Fox News.
"The analytical payload on MSL — in particular, SAM as a suite —has been making unprecedented measurements of solid material samples with incredible implications about Mars, but which require, as in all science, demonstration of reproducibility and adequacy of calibration/validation."
Based on the instruments on board, some are speculating that the rover found organic material of some sort. Organic, in scientific terms, refers to any molecule that includes carbon bonded to oxygen — which is essential to the formation of life, but appears throughout the universe in a multitude of ways and mostly is not alive.
Meteorites and interplanetary dust that carry organic material theoretically fall to the Martian surface on a daily basis, as they do on Earth, so the finding shouldn’t be too surprising beyond the fact that the rover’s tools work properly.
"Curiosity is not a life detection mission. We're not actually looking for life; we don't have the ability to detect life if it was there," Grotzinger has said in previous interviews. The rover can, however, deduce if material is biological based on the arrangement of its molecules.
Smith said the chances of finding life are “very, very low” but that it would be “astounding” if signatures of complex organic lifeforms were found in the sand near the rover.
"It won't be earthshaking, but it will be interesting," said NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesman Guy Webster.
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