The scientists in charge of NASA’s Curiosity rover are sitting on some exciting, but not-yet-confirmed news, NPR’s Joe Palca reports. The major discovery involves the biggest instrument on the Mars rover called the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM.
The purpose of SAM is to determine what minerals and chemicals are in the sand, rocks and atmosphere of Mars by collecting and processing samples.
SAM ingested its first soil sample from a wind-blown patch of sand known as “Rocknest” on Nov. 9. Apparently, the results are very cool, and we guess, might provide some indication as to whether Mars was ever able to support life, which is the purpose of the entire two-year Curiosity mission.
John Grotzinger, the lead project scientist for the Mars mission, tells Palca, “this data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”
The reason NASA is staying tight-lipped about the new data is because SAM previously examined samples of the Martian air, sparking rumblings that their might be methane on Mars. But to much dismay, Curiosity turned up no methane, a that gas would have been a sign of life on the Red Planet.
Then there’s the “arsenic-life” debacle. In 2010, NASA made a huge deal over arsenic-eating bacteria found in a California lake. A press release sent out by the space agency before a news conference called the discovery “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Well, it turns out the microbes didn’t only live on arsenic. The findings were debunked in a set of papers published in the journal Science in July.
Naturally, the space agency wants to make sure their analysis is correct before feeding any misleading news to the media (with the exception of this latest nugget of information).
Palca characterises the type of clandestine operation going on here:
Grotzinger says it will take several weeks before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding. In the meantime he’ll fend off requests from pesky reporters, and probably from NASA brass as well.
Guy Webster, a spokesman for the Curiosity crew, confirmed this in a zipped-up email to Business Insider: The “science team is analysing data from SAM’s soil inspection, but is not ready to discuss it yet,” he wrote. “Scientists want to gain confidence in the findings before taking them outside of the science team,” Webster added.
Meanwhile, the instrument that detects radiation on Mars recently presented data suggesting it would be possible for an astronaut to live on Mars, for a limited period of time, without being burnt to a crisp or getting severely ill from radiation poisoning.
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