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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

What Did Curiosity Find on Mars? Wait and See

By Phil Plait

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

Iâm getting emails, and seeing Facebook updates, blog posts, and tweetsâand I bet if I look hard enough, even smoke signalsâabout scientists saying theyâve found something âfor the history booksâ 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 SAMâfor Sample Analysis on Mars, an apparatus that can analyze material scooped up from the surfaceâare very excited about some preliminary results.

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 thatâs all we know. We donât know what they found. We donât even know what sort of thing theyâve 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.

Iâm seeing tons of speculation, though, and I will happily be the party pooper: donât 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 âdiscuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.â Of course, people immediately thought âaliens.â 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 âthe 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 âaliens.â That one turned out to be a young galactic supernova. Thatâs also cool, but it ainât aliens.

And here we go again, again. Iâm seeing people saying itâs aliens, itâs organic molecules, itâs this, itâs that. And Iâm getting people asking me what I think about this. So Iâll tell you what I think:

I donât know what it is.

And I wonât 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 theyâre seeing what they think theyâre seeing.

And when that happens Iâll be right here ready to report on it and give youâliterallyâthe straight scoop.

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